A century after Capt. Alfred Dreyfus succeeded in clearing his name of treason charges that became a national scandal and helped launch the Zionist movement, France is lauding the outcome as a “victory for the republic” — but warning that the scourge of anti-Semitism remains. President Jacques Chirac led a ceremony Wednesday at the Ecole Militaire, the site where Dreyfus was stripped of his military honors in 1895 after being wrongfully convicted of treason.
“From a Jewish family deeply faithful to the French republic and a graduate of the elite Polytechnic grande ecole,” Chirac said, Dreyfus “had begun an exemplary career. And suddenly, the man was caught in the snowball effect of a judicial error.
“This rehabilitation is a victory for the republic of France,” Chirac continued. “But the battle against hatred and anti-Semitism has not been won.”
The Dreyfus affair divided France and set off a wave of unprecedented anti-Semitism in Paris. The depth of the hatred against Jews helped convince Theodor Herzl, a young Austrian journalist covering the Dreyfus case, that Jews would never achieve full equality in Europe, and motivated him to launch the Zionist movement.
Hailing from Mulhouse in the Alsace region — which France had fought over with Germany, and where Jews had lived for centuries — Dreyfus spoke both French and German. When evidence was found indicating that someone had been passing secrets to the Germans, Dreyfus, the only Jew in the army’s high command, was accused.
Dreyfus was found guilty of high treason on Jan. 5, 1895, and was stripped of his rank and uniform in front of 20,000 people.
“Vive la France, vive l’armee!” — “Long live France, long live the army!” — he cried out.
He was sent to Devil’s Island, next to French Guiana in South America.
In 1896, the army and government found the officers who had spied for the Germans, but officials feared it would sully the army’s honor to admit their error. Commander Ferdinand Esterhazy, who had passed the information to Germany, was acquitted.
Politicians, intellectuals and left-wing writers took up Dreyfus’ cause. Supporters included writer Emile Zola, who published his famous open letter, “J’accuse!” on Jan. 13, 1898.
On the other side were right-wingers, monarchists and the army establishment, who called Dreyfus a traitor. Thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Paris, chanting, “Death to the Jews.”
Dreyfus returned from Devil’s Island in 1899, underwent another military trial, was again found guilty and was pardoned by President Felix Faure. He spent the next seven years of his life clearing his name.
France’s Supreme Court finally reinstated Dreyfus to the army in July 1906; he was promoted to major and given the Legion of Honor. His health broken from five years in a tropical prison, however, he retired from the army the following year.
On the centennial of Dreyfus’ rehabilitation, Paris and other French cities are hosting symposia and official ceremonies, museum exhibits and book publications dealing with “l’Affaire” and what it meant to France and to French Jews then and now.
At Wednesday’s in Paris event, not everyone agreed with Chirac’s description of the affair as a “judicial error.”
“This was not a judicial error. This was an anti-Semitic plot,” said Charles Dreyfus, the captain’s grandson.
“We are a bit disappointed by the president’s speech,” said Michel Dreyfus, the captain’s great-grandson. “I thought Chirac would announce some kind of solid measure to correct the injustice.”
Some were more pleased.
“I think this ceremony does represent a type of justice,” said Nicole Guedj, a Jewish former Cabinet minister and counsel to the president on humanitarian affairs. “In French, the word ‘rehabilitation’ means correcting an injustice. This implicitly means recognizing the innocence of the person involved.”
In the French newspaper Liberation, attorney Germain Latour wrote that the 1906 decision overturning Dreyfus’ second conviction confirmed that the affair had been based on false evidence presented by the chiefs of staff of the army, which then covered it up.
“The Dreyfus Affair was not a judicial error,” he wrote. “It was a judicial crime.
“Certain men who hated the captain no longer had a guilty victim. And their hatred was based on anti-Semitism,” he wrote.
“This business of rehabilitation can be taken further,” said Chaim Musicant, director general of CRIF, the umbrella group of Jewish organizations in France. “But it is a very good thing that France has not forgotten this affair.
“I think that President Chirac has been adept at using the past to keep history from repeating itself and getting across the message that there is no room for anti-Semitism in France,” he said. “However, the French army should have recognized its responsibility in setting up Capt. Dreyfus for high treason charges, and that has never happened.”
Michel Drouin, head of an international society on the history of the Dreyfus Affair, said that part of the crime was that no one in the army suffered any consequences: Everyone involved was amnestied.
“You simply could not touch the army then,” he said. “The total amnesty was decreed because the affair had become a pain, a useless trial. The amnestying of all the army people directly involved in the plot and the spying is a shameful page in French history.”
The affair is being marked by various cultural institutions. The links between the Dreyfus affair and modern Zionism are explained in an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.
Additionally, the first stone has been laid for a Dreyfus Museum in Medan, outside Paris, in an initiative under the patronage of Elie Weisel.
Finally, after much deliberation, it was decided that Dreyfus’ remains will not be transferred from the Montparnasse Cemetery to the Pantheon, home to France’s national heroes. Dreyfus’ family appears happy with the decision, saying he belongs with his wife and family.
“Dreyfus was a victim of French history,” Drouin explained. “He was a modest man. He would have preferred to stay with his family. The hero of this affair is Emile Zola, and he is already in the Pantheon.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.