No other issue divided France and other European countries more intensely in the last years of the 19th century than the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was banished for allegedly spying for the Germans. Gradually, however, it became increasingly clear that his superiors tampered with his dossier, and the military command covered the scandal up.
Possible rehabilitation was discussed intensely but it was Emile Zola who opened the public debate with his fiery article in L’Aurore, titled ‘J’Accuse!’. What is more important, he asked, the rights of individuals or the prestige of the state? This was a question that will reverberate time and again throughout the 20th century and beyond, and in 1898, when Zola first asked it, it was no less divisive. Friends, family members and literary salons were ripped apart by their differing stances; there were fights, divorces, and libel lawsuits.
A retrial was commissioned. During it (above), Marcel Proust sat in the public gallery each day with coffee and sandwiches, so as not to miss a moment. Proust and his brother Robert helped to circulate a petition for Dreyfus – an act that angered their father intensely. The petition, ‘The Manifesto of the Intellectuals’ was signed by 3,000 notables, including Anatole France, Andre Gide and Claude Monet. Anti-Dreyfusards also included equally eminent artisans, such as Renoir, Cezanne and Degas. Degas stopped speaking to Monet, Cassatt and Pissarro and disparaged his former friends’ art.
As Barbara Tuchman wrote in her monumental history of Europe before the First World War, The Proud Tower, Dreyfus affair was the death struggle of the old world. Many things we now take for granted – sensationalist press, public debates, petitions, liberal bourgeoisie class – were born out of the trial, as were impetuses that would drive many important events in the following decades. Anti-Dreyfus papers ran daily columns about a conspiracy involving Jews, Freemasons, socialists and foreigners. The Viennese Neue Freie Presse‘s correspondent in Paris was so shocked at the anti-Semitism that he would write the first sentences of his Der Judenstaat, ‘the Jews had to be given a country of their own’ subsequently. His name was Theodor Herzl, and the first seeds of what will become the state of Israel were first sown at the Dreyfus trial.
Dreyfus himself was pardoned, rehabilitated and awarded the Legion of Honor when France finally realized that the affair was damaging its international image. Once free, Dreyfus proved himself to be less idealistic than those who had fought for him. Years later, when a group of intellectuals asked him to sign a petition to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti – two American victims of a political process – Dreyfus flew into a rage: he wanted nothing more to do with such affairs. As Charles Péguy, one of the most fervent Dreyfusards, lamented in Notre Jeunesse: ‘We were prepared to die for Dreyfus, but Dreyfus himself was not’.