The Dreyfus affair, evoked today by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to stigmatize the accusations made against Israel in The Hague, is the darkest page of the Third Republic in France. It was a judicial scandal, with a trial built on false evidence against the backdrop of strong anti-Semitism that permeated society at the time.
It all began in September 1894 with the discovery, in a wastebasket at the German embassy in Paris, of a letter addressed to the German military attaché, Max von Schwartkoppen. It is interpreted as the message of a French officer giving secret information to the German authorities about the cannons tested by the French army. The commander of the services, Henry, opens an investigation.
Based on a cursory handwriting comparison, Captain Dreyfus, 35, was arrested on October 15. On December 22, the War Council condemned him to deportation for life to Devil’s Island, a feared penal colony off the coast of Cayenne, in French Guiana. Dreyfus claims his innocence but a wave of anti-Semitism rises in France, the right-wing newspapers are unleashed and the young officer is held up as the emblem of the responsibility of the ‘juifs’ for the country’s ills.
Especially in those years following the defeat of France in the war against Prussia and the consequent cession of Alsace to the Germans, the figure of a German-speaking, Jewish officer, seems to embody the perfect culprit of high treason.
The first doubts about guilt arose when the officer George Picquart, in 1896, intercepted a correspondence between the German colonel von Scwartzkoppen and the French commander Esterhazy, the writing of which was similar to that of the document at the origin of the Dreyfus case. Justice does not take its course, but the suspicion of being in the presence of a sensational fabrication rises in the social conscience.
Intellectuals take the field on the matter, Emile Zola publishes an open letter in Aurore entitled ‘J’accusè’ in which he points the finger at the government and the military for “harming humanity” and “harming justice”. A month later Zola was sentenced to a year in prison and during the trial riots broke out in Paris and many provincial cities.
On July 5, 1898, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, requests the annulment of her husband’s trial after the War Ministry discovers a forgery in the dossier prepared by Commander Henry.
Arrested, Dreyfus’ great accuser confesses everything and then commits suicide in prison. The new trial, in 1899, tainted by obvious irregularities, confirmed Dreyfus’ guilt but granted him extenuating circumstances and a reduction in 10 years’ imprisonment. Exhausted, Dreyfus agrees to renounce the Supreme Court in exchange for a presidential pardon. Rehabilitation will arrive, with the annulment of the original trial by the Supreme Court, only in 1906.