On this day: Alfred Dreyfus is arrested for spying

October 15 1894: The start of the Dreyfus Affair

By Jennifer Lipman, October 15, 2010

The Dreyfus Affair will go down in history as one of the great injustices in European Jewish history and as one of the events that spurred on the Zionist movement.

The French army were concerned that someone in their ranks was passing military information to Germany. Suspicion fell on a Jewish artillery officer, a graduate of the elite Polytechnic Grande Ecole, named Albert Dreyfus.

After his arrest, Dreyfus was court martialled, convicted and stripped of his rank. On January 5 1895, in front of a crowd of 20,000, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in South America. “Vive la France, vive l’armée!” - “Long live France, long live the army!” - he cried before being exiled.

But in 1896, the press began reporting that another man was behind the treason, and that Dreyfus had been made a scapegoat. The case exposed the antisemitism in parts of the French establishment and a campaign began to secure his freedom fronted by intellectuals and artists, including writer Emile Zola, who sent out the famous J’accuse letter.

Dreyfus was released in 1899 but not exonerated until 1906, when he was readmitted into the French army. He later served in the First World War.

At the retrial in 1899 a mob called for the “mass extermination” of the Jews. The case profoundly shocked a young Austrian journalist reporting on it for the Viennese paper Neue Freie Presse.

Theodore Herzl, credited as a father of Zionism and the man who went on to found the World Zionist Organisation in 1897, was that journalist. He wrote of Dreyfus as a symbol of the impossibility of the Jew to assimilate, “who tries to adapt himself to his environment, to speak its language, to think its thoughts, to sew its insignia on his sleeve — only to have them ruthlessly ripped away.”

What the JC said: There was an utter absence of motive for the betrayal alleged against Captain Dreyfus…the whole civilised world regarded him as a martyr to military and sectarian, a victim to the antisemitic agitation which had disgraced so many European countries…Dreyfus would not have been persecuted as he had been, were he not a Jew.

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Last updated: 3:04pm, February 4 2011