At its simplest, the Dreyfus Affair was the heart-wrenching story of an innocent man, framed by the real culprit, for selling secrets to an enemy; and an illegal cover-up by the military to hide its mistakes.
On a deeper level, it became the issue of the right to freedom of the individual being subordinated by the state, with Dreyfus as its symbol. Its incredible and far-reaching consequences tore apart the fabric of French life, including dramatic changes to the French constitution, the separation of state and clergy, and deep divisions between right and left that still reverberate today.
Depending on your point of view it was either the most shocking miscarriage of justice, or the acceptable sacrifice of an individual for the security of a nation. For many in a country that, one hundred years before, had fought a hard and bloody battle for freedom and fair treatment, this was not to be borne. Feelings ran so strongly that the whole country was polarised. The conflict, reflecting issues of anti-semitism, anti-clericism and anti-republicanism, was often violent.
Everyone living in France between the years 1894 and 1906, was forced to choose a side. There were two camps: Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards.
My characters, Angel and Elise, with their shared passion for justice, were, naturally, Dreyfusards and worked tirelessly behind the scenes with Dreyfus’ wife Lucie and family to free him.
Dreyfusards (pressing for the exoneration of Dreyfus) were mostly anti-clericals, Jews, left-wing intellectuals and radicals, their cause represented by Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper l’Aurore.
Anti-Dreyfusards( prepared to sacrifice Dreyfus for national security), mainly anti-semites, nationalists and conservatives opposed to republicanism, found a mouthpiece in the newspaper La Libre Parole, owned by Edouard Drumont, an anti-semite.
There is as much drama in this story as any fiction writer could desire; and movie makers were quick to take it up. A short summary of events include:
1894 – Captain Alfred Dreyfus convicted of treason for selling military secrets to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.
1896 – Increasing evidence that another officer, Ferdinand-Walsin Esterhazy was the culprit.
1898 – January – Esterhazy tried and acquitted of treason. In response Émile Zola wrote his famous letter J’accuse, published in l’Aurore, for which he was found guilty of libel.
1898 – August – A sensation caused by the confession of Major Hubert Henry that he fabricated important evidence against Dreyfus. Esterhazy immediately fled to England. Henry committed suicide.
1899 – September – Dreyfus retried and found guilty of treason in an infamous court-martial at Rennes. The President, Émile Loubet, pardoned him to resolve an inflammatory situation.
1906 – Dreyfus finally exonerated by a civilian court of appeal. He was given the Legion d’Honneur and a rise in rank to major. He had lost twelve years of his life, his career and his reputation. How could it be given back?
I find it touching that one innocent citizen’s ill-treatment by a corrupt military galvanised a country into action. Fair-minded people, revolted by injustice and racial/religious prejudice, took up the cudgels in defence of a principle: the right to freedom of the individual.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: I love it. Vive la France!