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100 Years Later, France Ready to Honor Dreyfus Affair Victims

January 7, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

French leaders are finally ready to pay homage to Capt. Alfred Dreyfus.

Exactly 100 years after Emile Zola penned his famous “J’accuse” in defense of Dreyfus, French officials will gather next week to commemorate the writer and the wrongly convicted Jewish officer.

The Jan. 13 ceremony, set to recall one of the most shameful episodes in French history, will be attended by President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou and Defense Minister Alain Richard.

It was not until the mid-1970s that the Dreyfus Affair could even be mentioned on French state radio and television.

And it was not until 1995 — 101 years after Dreyfus was convicted — that Gen. Jean-Louis Mourrut, head of the army’s historical service, publicly admitted that the army had made a mistake after all.

The presence of the French president and his most senior ministers at next week’s tribute to Dreyfus and Zola suggests that France is finally coming to terms with another unsightly stain on its history.

Dreyfus was arrested in 1894 after a French spy in the German Embassy found a document purportedly in Dreyfus’ handwriting that provided sensitive information to the Germans.

After a military show trial, Dreyfus was convicted of espionage, publicly stripped of his military medals and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a French penal colony off the coast of French Guiana, in South America.

The trial convulsed France in a violent anti-Semitic spasm.

Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed in 50 French towns. The fury then spread to the French colony of Algeria, where Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and entire Jewish neighborhoods were ransacked.

Among the hundreds of journalists from around the world who converged on France to witness the Dreyfus trial was Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Austrian Jew who covered the event for his Viennese newspaper.

The trial created in Herzl a terrible foreboding about the fate of European Jewry and convinced him to devote himself to the establishment of a Jewish state.

The Dreyfus Affair also had a powerful effect on Zola, France’s leading author, who wrote a 39-page open letter condemning anti-Semitism and denouncing France’s military and judicial establishment.

Newspaper editor Georges Clemenceau, who later served as prime minister, published the letter as an article on Jan. 13, 1898, with the words “J’accuse” — French for “I Accuse” — splashed across the front page.

In the article, Zola acknowledged the personal risks he was taking in blatantly defaming some of the most powerful men in France.

“I dare them to take me to court, and let the inquiry take place in full daylight. I’m waiting,” he wrote.

He did not have long to wait: The following month, Zola was summoned to court and sentenced to one year in jail and fined.

Instead of a cell, he chose exile in England, where he railed against the weather and the cuisine.

To all but the most committed anti-Semites, it was clear that Dreyfus was a scapegoat and that the real spy was a different officer, Maj. Ferdinand Esterhazy.

Esterhazy was eventually tried. But after deliberating for just three minutes, the military judges acquitted him rather than expose the army to ridicule for its past error.

But justice of a sort eventually caught up with Esterhazy when his German controller implicated him just before committing suicide.

Faced with disgrace, Esterhazy followed Zola to Britain and exile.

Yet even irrefutable proof that Esterhazy, not Dreyfus, was the traitor proved insufficient to convince the army to admit its mistake.

Dreyfus was retried — and again convicted, but his life sentence was reduced to 10 years. Finally, on Sept. 18, 1899, after both the French state and the army had become the object of derision, Dreyfus was granted a presidential pardon.

Two weeks later, Zola was granted amnesty and permitted to return to France. When Zola died on Sept. 28, 1902, passions were still running high.

A crowd of 50,000 Parisians accompanied the coffin to the Montmartre cemetery, where they were attacked by about 5,000 nationalists and anti-Semites. Two shots were fired at Dreyfus, one wounding him in the arm.

Though still not technically cleared of treason, Dreyfus rejoined the army and served as a defender of Paris during World War I. He was promoted to the rank of colonel and awarded the Legion of Honor in 1919. He died on June 12, 1935.

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