Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus (French: [al.fʁɛd dʁɛ.fys]; 9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935) was a French Jewish artillery officer whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most tense political dramas in modern French history with a wide echo in all Europe. Known today as the Dreyfus affair, the incident eventually ended with Dreyfus's complete exoneration.

Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935)
Alfred Dreyfus c. 1894
Born9 October 1859
Mulhouse, Alsace, Second French Empire
Died12 July 1935 (aged 75)
Paris, France
Buried (48°50′17″N 2°19′37″E / 48.83806°N 2.32694°ECoordinates: 48°50′17″N 2°19′37″E / 48.83806°N 2.32694°E)
Allegiance France
Service/branchFrench Army
Years of service1880–1918
Battles/warsWorld War I
AwardsChevalier de la Légion d'honneur (1906)
Officier de la Légion d'honneur (1918)
RelationsRaphael Dreyfus (father)
Jeannette Libmann (mother)
Lucie Eugénie Hadamard (wife)
Pierre Dreyfus (son)
Jeanne Dreyfus (daughter)
Alfred Dreyfus signature

Early life

Born in Mulhouse, Alsace in 1859, Dreyfus was the youngest of nine children born to Raphaël and Jeannette Dreyfus (née Libmann). Raphaël Dreyfus was a prosperous, self-made Jewish textile manufacturer who had started as a peddler. Alfred was 10 years old when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in the summer of 1870, and his family moved to Paris following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany after the war.

The childhood experience of seeing his family uprooted by the war with Germany prompted Dreyfus to decide on a career in the military. Following his 18th birthday in October 1877, he enrolled in the elite École Polytechnique military school in Paris, where he received military training and an education in the sciences. In 1880, he graduated and was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the French army. From 1880 to 1882, he attended the artillery school at Fontainebleau to receive more specialized training as an artillery officer. On graduation he was assigned to the Thirty-first Artillery Regiment, which was in garrison at Le Mans. Dreyfus was subsequently transferred to a mounted artillery battery attached to the First Cavalry Division (Paris), and promoted to lieutenant in 1885. In 1889, he was made adjutant to the director of the Établissement de Bourges, a government arsenal, and promoted to captain.

On 18 April 1891, the 31-year-old Dreyfus married 20-year-old Lucie Eugénie Hadamard (1870–1945). They had two children, Pierre (1891–1946) and Jeanne (1893–1981).[1] Three days after the wedding, Dreyfus learned that he had been admitted to the École Supérieure de Guerre or War College. Two years later, he graduated ninth in his class with honorable mention and was immediately designated as a trainee in the French Army's General Staff headquarters, where he would be the only Jewish officer. His father Raphaël died on 13 December 1893.

At the War College examination in 1892, his friends had expected him to do well. However, one of the members of the panel, General Bonnefond, felt that "Jews were not desired" on the staff, and gave Dreyfus poor marks for cote d'amour (French slang: attraction; translatable as likability). Bonnefond's assessment lowered Dreyfus's overall grade; he did the same to another Jewish candidate, Lieutenant Picard. Learning of this injustice, the two officers lodged a protest with the director of the school, General Lebelin de Dionne, who expressed his regret for what had occurred, but said he was powerless to take any steps in the matter. The protest would later count against Dreyfus. The French army of the period was relatively open to entry and advancement by talent, with an estimated 300 Jewish officers, of whom ten were generals.[2] However, within the Fourth Bureau of the General Staff, General Bonnefond's prejudices appear to have been shared by some of the new trainee's superiors. The personal assessments received by Dreyfus during 1893/94 acknowledged his high intelligence, but were critical of aspects of his personality.[3]

The Dreyfus affair

F. Hamel Stereoskopie Altona-Hamburg 1898 Dreyfuss auf der Teufelsinsel, Bildseite
Alfred Dreyfus in his room on Devil's Island in 1898,
stereoscopy sold by F. Hamel, Altona-Hamburg...; collection Fritz Lachmund
Alfred Dreyfus, Vanity Fair, 1899-09-07 edit
Dreyfus painted by Jean Baptiste Guth for Vanity Fair, 1899

In 1894, the French Army's counter-intelligence section, led by Lieutenant Colonel Jean Sandherr, became aware that information regarding new artillery parts was being passed to the Germans by a highly placed spy, most likely on the General Staff. Suspicion quickly fell upon Dreyfus, who was arrested for treason on 15 October 1894. On 5 January 1895, Dreyfus was summarily convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island in French Guiana. Following French military custom of the time, Dreyfus was formally degraded by having the rank insignia, buttons and braid cut from his uniform and his sword broken, all in the courtyard of the École Militaire before silent ranks of soldiers, while a large crowd of onlookers shouted abuse from behind railings. Dreyfus cried out: "I swear that I am innocent. I remain worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!"[4]

In August 1896, the new chief of French military intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, reported to his superiors that he had found evidence to the effect that the real traitor was a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Picquart was silenced by being transferred to the southern desert of Tunisia in November 1896. When reports of an army cover-up and Dreyfus's possible innocence were leaked to the press, a heated debate ensued about anti-Semitism and France's identity as a Catholic nation or a republic founded on equal rights for all citizens. Esterhazy was found not guilty by a secret court martial, before fleeing to England. Following a passionate campaign by Dreyfus's supporters, including leading artists and intellectuals such as Émile Zola,[5] he was given a second trial in 1899 and again declared guilty of treason despite the evidence in favor of his innocence.

However, due to public opinion, Dreyfus was offered and accepted a pardon by President Émile Loubet in 1899 and released from prison; this was a compromise that saved face for the military's mistake. Had Dreyfus refused the pardon, he would have been returned to Devil's Island, a fate he could no longer emotionally cope with; so officially Dreyfus remained a traitor to France, and pointedly remarked upon his release:

The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.[1]

For two years, until July 1906, he lived in a state of house-arrest with one of his sisters at Carpentras, and later at Cologny.

On 12 July 1906, Dreyfus was officially exonerated by a military commission. The day after his exoneration, he was readmitted into the army with a promotion to the rank of major (Chef d'Escadron). A week later, he was made Knight of the Legion of Honour,[6] and subsequently assigned to command an artillery unit at Vincennes. On 15 October 1906, he was placed in command of another artillery unit at Saint-Denis.


Dreyfus was present at the ceremony removing Zola's ashes to the Panthéon in 4 June 1908, when he was wounded in the arm by a gunshot from a disgruntled journalist, Louis Gregori, in an assassination attempt.

In 1937 his son Pierre published his father's memoirs based on his correspondences between 1899 and 1906. The memoirs were titled Souvenirs et Correspondance and translated into English by Dr Betty Morgan.

Dreyfus had started corresponding with the marquise Marie Arconati Visconti in 1899 and began attending her Thursday (political) salons after his release. They continued correspondence until her death in 1923.[7]

Later life

The Dreyfus family, taken in 1905
A 74-year-old Alfred Dreyfus, ca. 1934

World War I

Dreyfus's prison sentence on Devil's Island had taken its toll on his health. He was granted retirement from the army in October 1907 at the age of 48. As a reserve officer, he re-entered the army as a major of artillery at the outbreak of World War I. Serving throughout the war, Dreyfus rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

By then in his mid-50s, Dreyfus served mostly behind the lines of the Western Front, in part as commander of an artillery supply column. However, he also performed front-line duties in 1917, notably at Verdun and on the Chemin des Dames. He was promoted to the rank of Officier de la Légion d'honneur in November 1918.[8]

Dreyfus's son Pierre also served throughout the entire war as an artillery officer, receiving the Croix de guerre.


Dreyfus died in Paris aged 75, on 12 July 1935, exactly 29 years after his exoneration. Two days later, his funeral cortège passed the Place de la Concorde through the ranks of troops assembled for the Bastille Day national holiday (14 July 1935). He was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. The inscription on his tombstone is in Hebrew and French. It reads (translated to English):

Here Lies
Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Dreyfus
Officer of the Legion of Honour
9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935

A statue of Dreyfus holding his broken sword is located at Boulevard Raspail, n°116–118, at the exit of the Notre-Dame-des-Champs metro station. A duplicate statue stands in the courtyard to the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.


Captain Alfred Dreyfus's grandchildren donated over three thousand documents to the Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaïsme (Museum of Jewish art and history), including personal letters, photographs of the trial, legal documents, writings by Dreyfus during his time in prison, personal family photographs, and his officer stripes that were ripped out as a symbol of treason. The museum created an online platform in 2006 dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair.

In popular culture

In an episode of the television series The Munsters, Herman and Lily Munster reflect on their honeymoon on Devil's Island. Longing for another special night like that, Herman remarks that they should have stayed in touch with Captain Dreyfus, clearly a reference to the exiled captain.

See also


  1. ^ a b YuMuseum
  2. ^ Read, Piers Paul (2012). The Dreyfus Affair. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-4088-3057-4.
  3. ^ Read. The Dreyfus Affair. p. 84.
  4. ^ Read. The Dreyfus Affair. p. 113.
  5. ^ "Summary of Emile Zola's J'Accuse, and its Repercussions. Dreyfus Letter to Zola's Widow, 1910". SMF Primary Sources. Shapell Manuscript Foundation.
  6. ^ Minutes of the induction of Dreyfus into the Legion of Honor, French Ministry of Culture and Communication [1]
  7. ^ Wood, Michael (17 September 2017). "The French Are Not Men". Retrieved 29 October 2017. (London Review Of Books)
  8. ^ Biography of Alfred Dreyfus and General Chronology, French Ministry of Culture and Communication


  • Lettres d'un innocent (Letters from an innocent man) (1898)
  • Les lettres du capitaine Dreyfus à sa femme (Letters from capitaine Dreyfus to his wife) (1899), written at Devil's Island
  • Cinq ans de ma vie (5 years of my life) (1901)
  • Souvenirs et correspondence, posthumously in 1936
  • Michael Burns, Dreyfus: a family affair 1789–1945 (1991), Harpercollins. ISBN 978-0-06-016366-2.

External links

1894 in France

Events from the year 1894 in France.

An Officer and a Spy

An Officer and a Spy is a 2013 historical fiction thriller by the English writer and journalist Robert Harris. It tells the true story of French officer Georges Picquart from 1896-1906, as he struggles to expose the truth about the doctored evidence that sent Alfred Dreyfus to Devil's Island.


Cashiering (or degradation ceremony), generally within military forces, is a ritual dismissal of an individual from some position of responsibility for a breach of discipline.

Cause célèbre

A cause célèbre (, , French: [koz selɛbʁ], famous case; plural causes célèbres, pronounced like singular) is an issue or incident arousing widespread controversy, outside campaigning, and heated public debate. The term continues in the media in all senses. It is sometimes used positively for celebrated legal cases for their precedent value (each locus classicus or "case-in-point") and more often negatively for infamous ones, whether for scale, outrage, scandal or conspiracy theories.The term is a French phrase in common usage in English. Since it has been fully adopted into English and is included unitalicized in English dictionaries, it is not normally italicized despite its French origin.

In French, cause means, here, a legal case, and célèbre means "famous". The phrase originated with the 37-volume Nouvelles Causes Célèbres, published in 1763, which was a collection of reports of well-known French court decisions from the 17th and 18th centuries.

While English speakers had used the phrase for many years, it came into much more common usage after the 1894 conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for espionage during the cementing of a period of deep cultural ties with a political tie between England and France, the Entente Cordiale. Both attracted worldwide interest and the period of closeness or rapprochement officially broadened the English language.

It has been noted that the public attention given to a particular case or event can obscure the facts rather than clarify them. As one observer states, "The true story of many a cause célèbre is never made manifest in the evidence given or in the advocates' orations, but might be recovered from these old papers when the dust of ages has rendered them immune from scandal".

Devil's Island

The penal colony of Cayenne (French: Bagne de Cayenne), commonly known as Devil's Island (Île du Diable), was a French penal colony that operated in the 19th and 20th century in the Salvation's Islands of French Guiana. Opened in 1852, the Devil's Island system received convicts deported from all parts of the Second French Empire, and was infamous for its harsh treatment of detainees, with a death rate of 75% at their worst, until it was closed down in 1953. Devil's Island was notorious for being used for the internal exile of French political prisoners, with the most famous being Captain Alfred Dreyfus.


Dreyfus may refer to:

The Dreyfus affair, a French political scandal

Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), French Jewish military officer at the center of the above

Dreyfus (1930 film), a 1930 German film on the Dreyfus affair

Dreyfus (1931 film), a 1931 British film on the Dreyfus affair

Louis Dreyfus Group, a company

Dreyfus Corporation, a Mellon Financial Corporation subsidiary

Disques Dreyfus, a French record label

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, United States-based charitable foundation

Berta A. Dreyfus Intermediate School 49, middle school in Staten Island, New York City

Centre d'entraînement Robert Louis-Dreyfus, also known as La Commanderie, training ground of Olympique de Marseille

Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences, chemistry award

6317 Dreyfus, main-belt asteroid

Dreyfus (1931 film)

Dreyfus is a 1931 British film on the Dreyfus affair, translated from the play by Wilhelm Herzog and Hans Rehfisch and the 1930 German film Dreyfus. It features George Zucco in his film debut.

Dreyfus affair

The Dreyfus Affair (French: l'affaire Dreyfus, pronounced [la.fɛʁ dʁɛ.fys]) was a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. The affair is often seen as a modern and universal symbol of injustice, and it remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism. The major role played by the press and public opinion proved influential in the lasting social conflict.

The scandal began in December 1894 with the treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young Alsatian French artillery officer of Jewish descent. Sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil's Island in French Guiana, where he spent nearly five years.

Evidence came to light in 1896—primarily through an investigation instigated by Georges Picquart, head of counter-espionage—identifying a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy as the real culprit. After high-ranking military officials suppressed the new evidence, a military court unanimously acquitted Esterhazy after a trial lasting only two days. The Army then accused Dreyfus with additional charges based on falsified documents. Word of the military court's framing of Dreyfus and of an attempted cover-up began to spread, chiefly owing to J'Accuse…!, a vehement open letter published in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 by writer Émile Zola. Activists put pressure on the government to reopen the case.

In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial. The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (now called "Dreyfusards"), such as Sarah Bernhardt, Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Édouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence, but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free. Eventually all the accusations against Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. In 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. He served during the whole of World War I, ending his service with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He died in 1935.

The affair from 1894 to 1906 divided France deeply and lastingly into two opposing camps: the pro-Army, mostly Catholic "anti-Dreyfusards" and the anticlerical, pro-republican Dreyfusards. It embittered French politics and encouraged radicalization.

I Accuse!

I Accuse! is a British-American 1958 CinemaScope biographical drama film directed by and starring José Ferrer. The film is based on the true story of the Dreyfus Case, in which a Jewish captain in the French Army is falsely accused of treason.

Investigation and arrest of Alfred Dreyfus

The Dreyfus Affair began when a bordereau (detailed memorandum) offering to procure French military secrets was recovered by French agents from the waste paper basket of Maximilian Von Schwartzkoppen, the military attaché at the German Embassy in Paris. Blame was quickly pinned upon Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer who was in training within the French Army's general staff.


"J'Accuse...!" (French pronunciation: ​[ʒaˈkyz], "I Accuse...!") was an open letter published on 13 January 1898 in the newspaper L'Aurore by the influential writer Émile Zola.

In the letter, Zola addressed President of France Félix Faure and accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army General Staff officer who was sentenced to lifelong penal servitude for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the front page of the newspaper and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted for libel and found guilty on 23 February 1898. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England, returning home in June 1899.

Other pamphlets proclaiming Dreyfus's innocence include Bernard Lazare's A Miscarriage of Justice: The Truth about the Dreyfus Affair (November 1896). As a result of the popularity of the letter, even in the English-speaking world, J'accuse! has become a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against someone powerful.

Joseph Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut (22 March 1896 – 21 January 1964) was an Austrian-American actor. He won an Oscar for his performance as Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the film The Life of Emile Zola (1937), later he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Otto Frank in the film The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and a Primetime Emmy for his performance as Rabbi Gottlieb in a 1962 episode of the television series Sam Benedict.

Mark Dreyfus

Mark Alfred Dreyfus (born 3 October 1956) is an Australian politician who has been a member of the House of Representatives since 2007, representing the Division of Isaacs for the Labor Party. He was Attorney-General of Australia between February and September 2013, in the Gillard and Rudd Governments.

Messidor (opera)

Messidor is a four-act operatic drame lyrique by Alfred Bruneau to a French libretto by Émile Zola. The opera premiered on February 19, 1897 in Paris. The opera title comes from the tenth month of the French Republican Calendar.Although initially successful, the popularity of Messidor was adversely affected by the Dreyfus Affair which was occurring at the time of the opera's premiere. Because both Bruneau and his good friend Zola were active supporters of Alfred Dreyfus during his trial for treason, the French public did not welcome the composer's music for several years afterward.The collaborations between Bruneau and Zola, of which Messidor is the most notable, were considered an attempt at a French alternative to the Italian verismo movement in opera.

Prisoner of Honor

Prisoner of Honor is a 1991 British made-for-television drama film directed by Ken Russell and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Oliver Reed and Peter Firth. It was made by Warner Bros. Television and distributed by HBO, and centers on the famous Dreyfus Affair. Richard Dreyfuss co-produced the film with Judith James, from a screenplay by Ron Hutchinson.

The Dreyfus Affair (film series)

The Dreyfus Affair (French: L'affaire Dreyfus), also known as Dreyfus Court-Martial, is an 1899 series of short silent docudramas, conceived and directed by Georges Méliès. Released by Méliès's Star Film Company and numbered 206–217 in its catalogs, each of the eleven one-minute installments reconstructs an event from the historical Dreyfus affair, which was still in progress while the series was being made.

The Life of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about 19th-century French author Émile Zola, starring Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle, a German emigré. It is notable as the second biographical film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It premiered at the Los Angeles Carthay Circle Theatre to great success both critically and financially. Contemporary reviews ranked it as the best biographical film made up to that time. In 2000, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Produced during the Great Depression and after the Nazi Party had taken power in Germany, the film explored one man acting against anti-Semitic injustice in France in the late 19th century, when Zola became involved in the Dreyfus affair and worked to gain the officer's release. But early 21st-century studies noted this film as an example of Hollywood's timidity at the time: anti-Semitism was never mentioned in the film, nor was "Jew" said in dialogue. Some explicitly anti-Nazi films were cancelled in this period, and other content was modified. This was also the period when Hollywood had established the Production Code, establishing an internal censor, in response to perceived threats of external censorship.

Trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus

The trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus was the event that instigated the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal which divided France during the 1890s and early 1900s. It involved the wrongful conviction for treason of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish background. Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island.

The report of Major Bexon d'Ormescheville, handed in on December 3, was prejudiced and illogical. He had vainly tried to deduce a proof of some sort out of a heap of "possibilities" and numberless insinuations. Edgar Demange, whom the Dreyfus family had chosen as their lawyer, accepted this task only on the condition that the perusal of the papers should convince him of the emptiness of the accusation. He was convinced.

Demange concentrated on obtaining a public hearing, promising on his honour not to raise any delicate questions that might lead to a diplomatic incident. The brothers of Dreyfus and certain statesmen made urgent application in the same direction. However, the ministers decided that a private hearing was required by "state policy," he announced this conviction to the president of the court martial; such an announcement was equivalent to an order.

Émile Zola

Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola (; French: []; 2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902) was a French novelist, playwright, journalist, the best-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism, and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism. He was a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus, which is encapsulated in the renowned newspaper headline J'Accuse…! Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902.

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