HCJ TWO: The Dreyfus Affair

Notes taken from a lecture held by Shira Pinczuk at the University of Winchester, 2013.

Anti-Semitism, Media and Zionism

The Dreyfus Affair highlights the importance of the ‘innocence project’, the power of the mass media, issues brought about by anti-Semitism, Jewish nationalism and Zionism.

More importantly it demonstrates the importance of the work of journalists, as it was journalism what turned the Dreyfus file into Dreyfus affair and into Dreyfus myth. Not only this, but it underlines the dangers of Yellow Journalism (a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate facts or research).

The Events of the Dreyfus Affair

  • Sep 1894: Secret French military information is found in a wastepaper basket at the German Embassy in Paris. The counter-intelligence office immediately implicates Captain Alfred Dreyfus (a young Jewish French artillery officer).

Political Context: the Third Republic is twenty-four years old, very divided and broken. Theodor Herzl wrote the play “The New Ghetto” portraying the ambivalence and lack of security and equality of emancipated, well-to-do Jews in Vienna (representing his vision of Zionism).

  • Oct 1894: A secret martial court charges Dreyfus with treason. He declares his innocence throughout.
  • Jan 1895: Dreyfus is stripped of his military rank and sent to Devil’s Island (French Guinea) for life.

Mathieu Dreyfus, the elder brother became the chief architect of the restoration of his brother.

France is divided:

–                   Against: army, catholic church, monarchists

–                   In support: republicans, socialists, Jews

  • 1896: a French Army major, Ferdinand Esterhazy, is identified as the real culprit by Lt Col Piquard.

High-ranking military officials suppress the new evidence, Esterhazy is acquitted and flees France.

Piquard is sent to serve at the southern border of Tunisia.

Herzl publishes The State of the Jews envisioning the founding of a future independent Jewish State during the 20th century.

  • 1897: First Zionist Congress in Basel.
  • 1898: Emile Zola publishes an open letter in the newspaper L’Aurore titled: “J’Accuse”.
  • 1899: after a massive public campaign Dreyfus is pardoned but not acquitted of charges.
  • 1906: Dreyfus is acquitted in court, fully rehabilitated, reintegrated in the ranks with a promotion.


Around this time France was very militaristic and the army was seen as the symbol of French identity. Yet, the army was racist and anti-Semitic and it was in 1892 that a Jewish officer, Captain Armand Mayer, was killed in a death duel. It was this event which triggered considerable emotion, far beyond Jewish circles that continued throughout the Dreyfus Affair.

The Affair in the Media

  • 28 October 1984: A letter is received at La Libre Parole, with information about Dreyfus case,“…they say that he is away, but this is a lie , they want to keep it quiet…”
  • 29 October: La Libre Parole publishes an article about the arrest: “Why do military authorities keep the silence?” they ask.

This marks the beginning of a very violent press campaign until the trial. The affair enters the field of anti-Semitism, and it does not leave until its final conclusion.

  • 1st November: Big headlines: “Severe threat! Jewish officer was arrested! Capitan Dreyfus!”

La Petit Journal launches a personal attack on General Mercier: “Scarecrow General”, “If he kept silent for 2 weeks it’s only because Jewish people put pressure on him…”

  • November 1896: Bernard Lazare – Dreyfus Affair- A Miscarriage of Justice – ending with the phrase “J’Accuse”.
  • January 1899: Emile Zola’s, J’ACCUSE, creates strong provocation selling 200,000 copies.

What happened next?

– Strengthening of parliamentary democracy and failure of monarchist and reactionary forces.

-The creation of the French League for Human Rights.

-Anti-Semitism remained prominent.

-The Dreyfus affair created difficulties, blocking the way for improved relations between France and Italy after the customs war, as Italy was Europe’s most Dreyfusard nation.

-The shock of the Dreyfus Affair also had an impact on the Zionist movement “which found fertile ground for its emergence” – Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, 2001.

About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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