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This week in history: The Dreyfus Affair

All countries have their dark moments in history. Sometimes they are terrifyingly dark pogroms, and other times they are more subtle moments of sad indictment on a society. December 1894 was one of those moments in France. A trial against a young soldier by the French Government inspired Émile Zola to write to a national newspaper, and launched the Zionist movement which was itself so influential in the birth of Israel.

Alfred Dreyfus was born in Alsace in 1859, his father worked in textiles, and the young Jewish family grew up in a Yiddish speaking area of Alsace. When the Germans won control over Alsace after the Franco-Prussian war the population were given the choice of remaining in the place they had always lived and renouncing their French nationality, or keeping their nationality and leaving what was now German territory. The family opted for the latter and upped sticks to Paris…

After a French education Alfred entered the military, after watching his home town be overtaken by the German as a small boy he wanted to contribute to protecting France, and became an officer trainee in 1893.

The French were still, even after the loss of Alsace, embroiled in to-ing and fro-ing with the Germans, and espionage was as common as it is today, albeit a little more que than Q technology wise. In the office of the German ambassador the French placed a cleaning lady who though appeared to her German ’employers’ as a stupid illiterate commoner, was infact a highly literate spy. She served passing a number of secrets on, and in 1894 she passed on the letter that divided France.

The bordereau was apparently found in a waste bin, though its good condition may also suggest that Madame Bastian stole it by some other means, contained a list of secrets that a contact was apparently willing to pass onto the Germans.

After some investigation suspicion fell on the only Jewish officer trainee, Dreyfus. A man who had is roots in what was now Germany, Alsace. Further investigation convinced the intelligence agents  (who frankly weren’t showing an awful lot of intelligence) that the handwriting in the note belonged to Dreyfus.

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the anti-Semitism prevalent in the French military persuaded the investigators that despite an almost devoted love of France that Dreyfus was guilty.

The trial divided France. With those persuaded that he must be the criminal, this strange foreign sounding man who had even whilst in training argued with his commanding officers over his treatment, against those who protested his innocence.

Dreyfus was found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment on the charmingly named Devil’s Island, but his sentence did not end the divisions in France. The battle over Dreyfus continued. In 1898 Émile Zola accused the government of anti-Semitism, and the debate raged on…

Despite finally discovering the real spy in that same year, the military were unwilling to admit the snafu and Dreyfus even found himself subject of a further court marshal. Happily though, in December 1900 he was finally pardoned.

Despite the appalling treatment of the government and military Dreyfus returned to his commission, and served as a reserve Major during World War I (his imprisonment causing health problems), even serving on the front line in 1917.