To what extent was anti-Semitism the motive force behind the Dreyfus Affair?
Described as a ‘catalyst for tensions in French society’ (Kedward), the Dreyfus affair divided France dramatically. On Monday 15 October 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a junior member of the French general staff was arrested and condemned for selling military secrets to the Germans. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island despite being innocent, and if he was guilty of any ‘crime’ in 1894, it was of being Jewish. The judges in fact, already knew the perpetrator.
In 1893, discoveries were made that led to the belief that a traitor was present in the French army. Documents disappeared which concerned the defence of the country, maps, plans of fortresses, copies of secret instructions and much more.
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In 1894, a letter, which came to be known as the bordereau, and other papers were found in a waste paper basket in the office of Colonel Von Schwartzkoppen, a German military attachï¿½, and these made it appear as though a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. The bordereau was, however, produced to the French military by Commandant Henry in September 1894. It appeared to be the covering letter sent with certain military communications.
On 4 September the bordereau was copied and distributed to the departmental chiefs. All the officer and chiefs who were shown this document agreed that a traitor had to be found and brought to justice. Suspicion fell on Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the French general staff.
On 15 October 1894, Dreyfus was arrested for treason, and the affair began. But why was Dreyfus accused? Dreyfus’ handwriting was similar to that of the bordereau, he was an artillery specialist and an Alsatian Jew, but to what extent was the fact that Captain Dreyfus of the third bureau was a Jew, influenced the evidence found against him?
The Dreyfus affair followed a long line of failures for the French, and this is why it was so significant in demonstrating the social and political tensions of late nineteenth century France.
On 4 September 1870, following the defeat and abdication of Louis Napoleon III at Sedan came the proclamation of the French Third Republic. This was met with opposition from monarchists who were not yet prepared for a republic. Many people longed for the restoration of the monarchy, but the monarchists were divided and this made them weak. The monarchist’s differences laid in the opposing views of who should be next on the throne. There were two possible candidates for the throne: the count of Chambord, and the count of Paris. The count of Chambord, a Bourbon, wanted to restore the regime of pre-1789 France, whereas the count of Paris, the Orleanist, was content with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and their opinions caused the monarchists to divide between the Bourbon and Orleanist houses, and ‘…their division was the Republic’s opportunity’1.
By the end of January 1871, France was defeated by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War. This now demonstrated that Germany was the most powerful military and industrial power in Europe. The Treaty of Frankfurt was negotiated by Adolphe Theirs, and signed on 10 May 1871. The French, by the terms of the treaty, lost the two provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and had to pay 200 million francs to the Germans.
The loss of Alsace and Lorraine was bitterly resented, and anger against the royalist government grew in Paris. In March 1871, left-wing revolutionaries formed the Commune of Paris. This led to Paris being subject to brutal attacks and a siege which left at least 20 000 dead. The resistance was broken on 28 May 1871 by the French government forces.
There were also other ‘affairs’ which were the cause of tension within late nineteenth century France, such as the Boulanger Affair and the Panama Scandal. General George Boulanger was appointed as Minister of War in 1886, mainly ‘…because of his proven republic sympathies.’2 Boulanger began to gain support by working in a way which obviously pleased the Republicans.
Between 1885 and 1887, Boulanger’s popularity grew rapidly, mainly because he restored pride in the army and threatened to wage war with Germany so that Alsace and Lorraine could be recovered. Boulanger was even referred to by Bismarck as the great obstacle to good relations between France and Germany. Bismarck’s disapproval for Boulanger greatly pleased the monarchists, and restored their faith in the ambition of replacing the Republic with a Monarchy.
However, The government of Rouvier became nervous of Boulanger’s increasing popularity and sent him to Auvergne. Many were determined not to allow their newly found ‘hero’ to leave, and demonstrations were held to try and prevent this happening. His supporters held a series of by-elections, which they won, but Boulanger lost his nerve and fled from France in 1889.
The Panama Scandal began when the French wanted to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. The company who were hired by the Chamber, however, underestimated the amount of money that was needed to build the canal, and were declared bankrupt in 1889, yet despite 830 000 investors having lost their money, little was mentioned about the failure of the company for four years. It was discovered, however, that a scandal was occurring, in which two German Jews had bribed deputies and journalists not to report the progression of the canal. This shows the insecurity of Republic France, as people were paid to protect the honour of the Republic, and to hide the fact that it had failed, but the scandal was made public and this increased the nervousness of the Republic dramatically.
The fact that the Dreyfus Affair followed on from the Panama Scandal is very important. If France showed evidence of being quite anti-Semitic before the Panama Scandal, it was now to be heavily consecrated in anti-Semitic feeling more than ever before. There were three identifiable anti-Semites in the war office alone: Colonel Sandherr, the director of the department, Major Picquart, and Major Cordier. Beneath the surface, however, there was no doubt many more people who were prejudice towards the Jews. There are historians, such as Jacques Kayser, who claim that Marquis du Paty de Clam of the second section was a violent anti-Semite.
When the officers and chiefs first began looking for the name of a traitor, they had decided to look through the lists of probationers, hoping that this would give them an insight into who could possibly be guilty. Colonel Fabre had kept detailed reports on many of the probationers, and all had been excellent, with the exception of Dreyfus’.
Dreyfus was reported as being ‘A secretive fellow. His comrades dislike him’.
There is much evidence that supports the fact that Dreyfus was unpopular. Chapman comments that: ‘Other officers with whom he served said he put his nose into matters which did not concern him, especially mobilisation plans, and talked about them too much’1. Dreyfus was also quite vain, and this caused him to be disliked also. He often liked to display knowledge of secret and confidential topics, and often boasted about his wealth, and sometimes about women.
Dreyfus was also quite rich. In 1894, he had a private income of 25-30 000 francs a year, and therefore the source of this income was questionable. In the French army’s opinion, ‘being a Jew, would he not wish to increase his wealth?’2 However, Commandant Esterhazy, a French infantry officer who was in fact completely responsible for the Dreyfus affair, was far more likely to have been the one guilty of selling military secrets to the Germans as he was a compulsive gambler and always in debt. It is obvious from these facts that Esterhazy was far more likely to have needed to make money so that he could pay off this debts and feed his gambling addiction.
The honour of the army also helped to find Dreyfus guilty. When the bordereau was first found, the army needed to find and name a traitor so that the honour of the French army could be upheld. Dreyfus, being the only Jew in the French general staff, appeared to be the perfect culprit, as after the Panama scandal, who but a Jew would let down their country? But this was not the first time that Dreyfus had been discriminated against because of his religion. In 1890, Dreyfus emerged from the Ecole de Guerre ninth out of eighty-one officers. Because Dreyfus was a Jew, he was prevented from being placed higher.
The army did not want to lose its status, secured by Boulanger, and therefore, when Picquart discovered that Esterhazy was in fact the author of the bordereau, he was silenced, removed from his position, and sent to Tunisia. Before this happened, when Picquart confronted General Boisdeffre, army chief of staff, he simply answered: ‘I don’t want another Dreyfus case. He’ll be put on retire pay and sent about his business. He must be got rid of without any scandal’. The army was more concerned about keeping its good image, than admitting that they court-martialled an innocent man, and it was far easier to accept that a Jew had betrayed France than it was to accept a Frenchman had. After all, the Jews were known to be traitors.
Guy Chapman, however, suggest that: ‘The darker anti-Semitic shadows on the case came not from the army, but from the press’3.
In 1886, Edouard Drumont, an anti-Semitic leader and writer wrote La France Juive. This was an anti-Jewish book which sold 200 000 copies. In 1892, Drumont launched La Libre Parole with a violent campaign against Jews and their admission into the army, and in 1899, he formed the National Anti-Semitic League.
On 1 November 1894, La Libre Parole reported: ‘High treason. Arrest of Jewish officer, A. Dreyfus.’ The article attached with the headline told of how a Jewish traitor had made a full confession to the selling of French secrets to the Germans. Once this report was made, the press took a great interest in the case and reported scandalous tales of even Dreyfus being in pay of Italy! The Petit Journal when reporting the Dreyfus case wrote: ‘He is not a Frenchman’. This encouraged anti-Semitic feelings to grow rapidly. A Jew had betrayed their country, and others were bound to be doing the same. ‘Anti-Semitism rose to a pitch never experienced before in France; at that time every Frenchman, without exception, was an anti-Semite’2. Some newspapers, following the court-martial of Dreyfus argued that: ‘Judas marched too well’. Without the press’ intervention, the fact that Dreyfus was accused of treason because of the fact that he was Jewish would not have dominated the case.
The Dreyfus case also opened the opportunity for the monarchists and the republicans to fight against each other again. Anti-Dreyfusards tended to be the Catholics, and the monarchists, and they used the affair to oppose to the Republic. Dreyfusards were mainly Republicans, socialists, pacifists, and anti-clericals. The anti-Dreyfusards defended the institutions of traditional France, and the Dreyfusards, in the words of Nancy Fitch: ‘…argument [was] that conscientious people everywhere must stand up and preserve French legal institutions’.
Once faced with the case of the Dreyfus affair, many historians have been inclined to blame the affair on anti-Semitic circles within the French army, mainly because there is a substantial amount of evidence to support this. Dreyfus was the only Jew in the French general staff, and many members of the French army were known to be anti-Semitic. Once the Dreyfus Affair became public, the Jews were accused of being guilty of every downfall in the history of France since their ‘influx’ into the country.
To what extent, however, was the case a result of anti-Semitic motives? Chapman writes that Joseph Reinach puts the events of the Dreyfus affair down to anti-Semitism, but claims that he himself does not necessarily believe that anti-Semitism was the motive force behind the Dreyfus affair. He argues that anti-Semitism did not play the dominant role in the arrest and trial of Dreyfus1. This is because there were many other factors that contributed to Dreyfus’ court-martial.
One must consider, however that there were many forces behind the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus’ personality was one of the reasons for him being accused of treason. If Dreyfus had been more popular among his fellow officers, he would have received a better report and he would not have stood out as a possible traitor. He also was too eager to express knowledge of military secrets and this also made him a suspect.
The Dreyfus affair also was the result of the insecurities of the French army following their defeat to the Prussians. Fearing that the image of the French army would be dented, the army chose to cover the fact that one of their own men would betray them to the country that they already had been beaten by. It was far easier to place the blame on a Jewish man than a French man, and this is one on the reasons why it took 12 years to exonerate Dreyfus. It would have also been very difficult for the army to admit that they were wrong, as this would have caused the unstable political tensions to increase even more. People would lose all faith in the army.
There was also the fact that the Dreyfus affair grew so large because monarchists and republicans used the affair to argue their cases. When France divide between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, the tensions resulted in making the case a monumental stand in history not only for political significance of the case, but for the arguments for human rights.
With all the above reasons aside, the Dreyfus case revolved around anti-Semitism. The majority of opinions on the case are that without anti-Semitic forces, there would not have been a case against Dreyfus. Hannah Ardent argued that: ‘The Dreyfus Affair… is the culmination of the anti-Semitism which grew out of the special conditions of the nation state.’ She therefore was arguing that the army created the majority of anti-Semitic views against Dreyfus and therefore caused the case to explode.
It is therefore fair to argue that although the case of Dreyfus was the result of a mixture of social and political tensions, and other reasons, such as Dreyfus’ tendency to boast, the case was largely due to anti-Semitic exploitation. The army was fairly responsible for this, but I would agree with Chapman that without the intervention of the media, the anti-Semitic feelings circling the case would not have expanded to the degree that they reached, and the case would not have been made so public. A traitor was named, and unfortunately for Dreyfus, he was a Jew.