Sunday, October 9, 2011
Alfred Dreyfus (October 9, 1859)
Alfred Dreyfus is an important figure in modern Jewish history, but he's actually more of a victim than a hero. The Dreyfus Affair, as the event came to be called, divided late-19th century Republican France. Someone had been passing military secrets from the French to the Germans, and one officer with access to the documents, Dreyfus, came under suspicion because he was a Jew. The evidence against him was dubious, but his race was enough to convict him. This was the era when hatred of Jews was a political position, with every effort on the part of the haters to make anti-Semitism respectable -- in fact, they had coined the term itself to justify their beliefs.
After Dreyfus was convicted and sent to Devil's Island, evidence against another officer came to light. A major cover-up followed this discovery, including falsification of documents and widespread conspiracy to change facts and create contradictory evidence. The guilty man, Esterhazy, was the perfect opposite of Dreyfus. His family were old European nobility, he was politically right wing, and he appealed to the anti-Semites. His trial was politically charged; after five minutes of deliberation, the judges declared him innocent, and crowds in the streets cried "Long live the Army!" "Long live France!" and "Death to the Jews!"
I wrote much more about the Dreyfus affair in connection with Emile Zola.