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Alfred Dreyfus Passes Away, 1935

On This Day in Jewish History: July 12, 1935

On this day in Jewish History, Alfred Dreyfus passed away “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times”: The Third French Republic was a bastion of social stability and egalite that was threatened finally by the contradiction of the century – the Dreyfus trial. On this day in Jewish history, Lieutenant-colonel Alfred Dreyfus passed away. France has a long and messy history regarding its treatment of Jews. For every King to invite the Jews to live, another would exile them. This back and forth throughout the centuries left many Jews to feel unwelcome and ostracised within France. The advent of the French Revolution in 1791, could bring about change. The revolution was fought for “liberty, equality, fraternity” however, like most things in history – this did not necessarily include Jews. Six months after the storming of the Bastille, the National Assembly would discuss the: 'Jewish question,' concluding that the Jews could not be their own nation but rather individuals within the French republic.

The Jews would gain French citizenship, however, the revolution's bloody hatred towards religion would lead to the closure of many Jewish institutions and synagogues during the Reign of Terror. Although the revolution granted the Jews of France equal rights, it did not guarantee them assimilation into the larger French fraternity. It was under Napoleon Bonaparte that the Jews of France would see larger integration into French society. Napoleon called for a Great Sanhedrin of Jewish leaders and rabbis to convene to oversee new regulations for the Jews of France. Napoleon wished to provide social reforms that could reconcile his subjects’ Jewish beliefs with their French Duties so that they could become “useful citizens.” He had hoped these reforms would increase the rate of assimilation. The Sanhedrin ruled that the law of the kingdom is the law for Jews There were limitations to the emperor’s decrees: there could not be further Jewish immigration to the eastern region of Alsace, where a large Jewish community resided. Here in 1859, Alfred Dreyfus was born. Since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, France was in a constant swing between different forms of government. By the time of the Third Republic, France had recently lost the region of Alsace-Lorraine to the rising Prussian (modern-day Germany) war machine – a loss that would cause a major grudge between the Western powers for the better part of the next century. Many Jews from the Alsace region fled to mainland France. The fallout of the humiliating loss was a resurrection of Catholicism and a further reform of the French army. The latter would allow a young Dreyfus to rise as a young artillery officer while the former would mark him as an enemy within. Antisemitism was rampant within the French army, however, as many Jews such as Dreyfus could rise amongst their ranks gave hope of a more equal environment. The French did not trust the recently unified German Empire. The French army had placed a spy as a cleaner in the German embassy. At night she would steal shredded documents from Lieutenant Colonel Maximilien von Schwarzkoppen – the German military attaché. The espionage proved fruitful when a plot was discovered to sell French artillery secrets to the Germans was uncovered. The authorities were quick to accuse Dreyfus.

While Jews may have begun to assimilate into French society, their acceptance was still conditional. Dreyfus’s Alsatian birth and Jewish identity created an environment where many in the Republic were quick to label him a traitor who had no loyalty to the Republic. Antisemitic publications such as the La Libre Parole and La Croix were quick to use the arrest to justify their beliefs that French Jews had no loyalty to the republic. A swift military court-martial was organised. The army had to come to a solution. There was little evidence to charge Captain Dreyfus while there was fear of public backlash if the army was protecting a so-called Jewish traitor. A graphologist claimed that Dreyfus’s handwriting did not match that of the recompiled document. Instead of exonerating the captain, this evidence was used against him in a claim that he had intentionally tried to mask his deception – further playing into the scheming Jew stereotype. The prosecution presented a fabricated document to the court-martial board without Dreyfus’s legal team having access. Dreyfus was found guilty.

Dreyfus was marched through the streets of Paris. His medals were ripped from his uniform and his sword snapped in front of him while a crowd of Parisians cried out “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” A ceremony such as this would match the Roman triumphs of millennia prior showing antisemitism had still been an epidemic in Europe. Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana in South America. He would spend five years on the island in solitude where he longed for his family and sharpened his mind on the works of Shakespeare.

Back on the mainland, evidence arose of the true culprit. The spy found a second note with the same handwriting in the embassy. This time they traced the note back to gambler and drunkard Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Esterhazy had a history of mistrust for the French Army and yet the “Jewish traitor” was still to blame. There was a second court-martial for Esterhazy, however, the military sooner cleared Esterhazy than admit they had made a mistake with Dreyfus. France descended into factionalism with those that supported Dreyfus – the Republican Dreyfusards and the more conservative Catholic anti-Dreyfusards. In 1898, novelist Émile Zola wrote an open letter accusing the army of illegally convicting Dreyfus which he feared undermined the notion of democracy. Zola was convicted of libel against the nation and chose to go into self-imposed exile. Tensions finally convinced the judiciary to allow a second court-martial. Dreyfus returned from his southern prison unaware of the impact he had across the Republic. However, the court-martial was too afraid to rule that they had made a mistake and without any evidence, The board found him guilty – again. The newly elected liberal government was sympathetic towards Dreyfus and in a bid to gain political favour, pardoned Dreyfus on the condition he admit his wrongdoing. After tribulation and years of solitude, Dreyfus accepted the pardon so he could return to his family. Only a few years later the courts finally acquitted Dreyfus of any wrongdoing and have his military service restored.

Dreyfus was an innocent man at last. Two decades after his arrest, the Great War would break out. Instead of enjoying his retirement, Dreyfus showed his devotion to France and returned to the battlefield. He would fight in the Battle of Verdun – the longest battle of the war. Dreyfus was a war hero who after being humiliated by his country still was willing to give his life to defend the home that had betrayed him. He would pass away on 12 July 1935. Dreyfus left a legacy that would change the world. The first trial to rock a modern nation. The aftermath of his trial would show a Viennese journalist, Theodor Herzl, who was covering the trial, that Europe could never be a home for Jews no matter how much they assimilated. His granddaughter Madeline would join the French resistance during the Second World War, choosing to assume arms against the Nazis. The Nazi puppet regime of Vichy France would deport her to Auschwitz where she would die at twenty-five.  

References: Encyclopedia Britannica. 2022. Alfred Dreyfus | French military officer. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Dreyfus> [Accessed 10 July 2022]. Delage, I. and Papot, E., 2019. Napoleon I and the integration of the Jews in France: some points of interest - napoleon.org. [online] napoleon.org. Available at: <https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/napoleon-and-the-jews/> [Accessed 10 July 2022]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2019. Dreyfus affair | Definition, Summary, History, Significance, & Facts. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/event/Dreyfus-affair> [Accessed 11 July 2022]. Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. n.d. France Virtual Jewish History Tour. [online] Available at: <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/france-virtual-jewish-history-tour> [Accessed 10 July 2022]. Gopnik, A., 2009. Trial of the Century. The New Yorker, [online] Available at: <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/28/trial-of-the-century#editorsnote> [Accessed 10 July 2022]. Rpl.hds.harvard.edu. n.d. Judaism in France. [online] Available at: <https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/faq/judaism-france> [Accessed 11 July 2022]. Martin, B., 1998. Thinking Outside the Box About the Dreyfus Affair. [online] Jstor. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/42844708> [Accessed 11 July 2022]. Nix, E., 2015. What was the Dreyfus affair?. [online] HISTORY. Available at: <https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-dreyfus-affair> [Accessed 11 July 2022]. Rayman, N., 2015. he History of Jews in France in 6 Key Moments. Time, [online] Available at: <https://time.com/3669544/history-jews-in-france/> [Accessed 10 July 2022]. ZOLLMAN, J., n.d. The Dreyfus Affair | My Jewish Learning. [online] My Jewish Learning. Available at: <https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-dreyfus-affair/> [Accessed 12 July 2022].

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