The debate surrounding Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish military officer who was falsely convicted of spying for Germany, characterized Europe’s shift into modern political anti-Semitism at the turn of the 20th century, and eerily foreshadowing and underpinning the genocide that would come some four decades later.

The Dreyfus “case,” as it was considered when the officer was first falsely convicted in 1894, would evolve, with time, into a full-fledged affair, as it is remembered today. And that can largely be credited to French novelist Émile Zola, whose polemical open letter “J’accuse” sparked a debate that would expose French anti-Semitism and barbarism to a world that, up to this point, had largely viewed the country as a beacon of civilization.

But to understand how that debate changed, one must first understand the socio-political context in which the Dreyfus case unfolded, in which a man with an exemplary record could be sent to Devil’s Island, the notorious penal colony in French Guiana, for no other reason than his Jewish background.

In the decades following France’s defeat to Prussia in 1871, anxiety and self-consciousness over lost power gripped the country. Whereas France had been the second most populous country at the turn of the century, it had fallen to fifth by the century’s end. It was a time of high-running nationalist feelings, when one could not be considered French unless born of French parents, preferably Catholic.

It was also a time of great economic change. While about 60 percent of the French population still lived in the countryside, more people were moving to cities as industrialization took hold. Still, much of France remained very much imprinted in its old ways; despite Napoleon’s centralizing initiatives, France remained “largely a mosaic of idiosyncratic communities… that retained their own customs and dress and whose inhabitants often spoke only a regional language (e.g. Breton, Basque) or a local patois,” as historian David Drake has noted.

Economically, times were not easy. Against the backdrop of growing fears over Prussia, now more prosperous and populous, grew discontent over economic disparities. “Economic stagnation had meant increased unemployment and destitution… Around 1899, it was estimated that there were about 400,000 beggars in France—over one percent of the population,” Drake noted.

Jews were granted full citizenship under Napoleon nearly a century prior, but anti-Semitism remained very much a daily presence, a convenient compliment to wariness over foreigners. Jews very much fit into the portrait of a foreigner. At this point in time, many Jews in France had come from Eastern Europe, fleeing pogroms, or Germany itself, including Dreyfus’ family. Jews, of course, also had been blamed for centuries by the Catholics for the death of Jesus, and did not fit into the Christian, or at least Christian conception, of what it was France should be.

The Dreyfus case, concocted by the French military elite against a fellow officer, was fueled by the anti-Semitic fervor common in turn-of-the-century France. This was a period when “La France Juive” (France of the Jews) was one of the most well received books of the century; published in 1886, it went through 114 editions in one year, according to Drake.

“‘La France Juive’ both reflected the widespread anti-Semitism in France and fueled it by ‘proving’ how France had been taken over by the Jews,” Drake noted.

In addition, Dreyfus was from the Alsace region, which had been annexed by the German empire during the last war, in which France had been defeated—a suspicious blot on his record for nationalists. Dreyfus’ family spoke Yiddish and German, and Dreyfus, though one of the only children to receive a fully French education, is said to have spoken French with a German accent.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe explains how the Dreyfus case began, after the discovery of a letter offering to sell French military secrets to the Germans:

“After an inept investigation, the military intelligence chief, an outspoken anti-Semite, fingered Dreyfus, the only Jew on the army’s General Staff. In truth, Dreyfus was an ardent French patriot, whose boyhood ambition had been to serve his country in uniform. A secret court martial convicted Dreyfus on the basis of a falsified dossier, and in a humiliating public ‘degradation’ at the Ecole Militaire, he was stripped of his decorations and his sword was broken. As Dreyfus loudly protested his innocence, the historian Paul Johnson writes, ‘an immense and excited crowd… was beginning to scream, ‘Death to Dreyfus! Death to the Jews.'”

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“Within months a new intelligence chief had identified the real villain, Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy. Supporters of Dreyfus—the Dreyfusards—demanded that the case be reopened, but high-ranking officers, determined to shield the army from embarrassment, conspired to protect the traitor. In a sham court-martial, Esterhazy was acquitted. It was in response to that second travesty that Zola wrote ‘J’accuse!’”

Zola’s open letter, published January 13, 1898 on the front page of L’Aurore, came four years after Dreyfus had been convicted. Zola, as one of France’s most prominent novelists of the time, knew he was risking his career—and even legal sanction for defamation—when he decided to write the letter. Clocking in at around 5,000 words, it named the officers that Zola believed had orchestrated Dreyfus’ sham trial and pleaded for the president to take charge and restore France’s honor in correcting the miscarriage of justice.

“When we bury the truth underground,” Zola wrote to the president in French, “it gathers itself and grows, taking on the force of an explosion. And the day that it bursts, everything else will explode with it.”

Zola closed his oeuvre with unbounded indignation, name after name rattled before scathing accusation.

“I accuse Lt. Col. du Paty de Clam of being the diabolical creator of this miscarriage of justice—unknowingly, I am willing to believe—and of defending this sorry deed, over the last three years, by all manner of bizarre and evil machinations.”

“I accuse General Mercier of complicity, at least by mental weakness, in one of the greatest inequities of the century.”

“I accuse General Billot of having held in his hands absolute proof of Dreyfus’ innocence and concealing it, thereby making himself guilty of crimes against mankind and justice, as a political expedient and a way for the compromised General Staff to save face.”

“I accuse General de Boisdeffre and General Gonse of complicity in the same crime, the former, no doubt, out of religious prejudice, the latter perhaps out of that esprit de corps that has transformed the War Office into an unassailable holy ark.”

“I accuse General de Pellieux and Major Ravary of conducting a fraudulent inquiry, by which I mean a monstrously biased one, as attested by the latter in a report that is an imperishable monument to naïve insolence.”

“I accuse the three handwriting experts, Messrs. Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of having submitted reports that were deceitful and fraudulent, unless a medical examination finds them to be suffering from a disease that impairs their eyesight and judgment.”

“I accuse the offices of the War Office of having used the press, particularly L’Eclair and L’Echo de Paris, to conduct an abominable campaign to mislead public opinion and cover up their own wrongdoing.”

“Finally, I accuse the first court martial of violating the law by convicting the accused on the basis of evidence that was kept secret, and I accuse the second court martial of covering up this illegality, on orders, by committing the judicial crime of acquitting a guilty man with full knowledge of his guilt.”

“In making these accusations I am aware that I am making myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of the July 29, 1881 law on the press making libel a punishable offense. I expose myself to that risk voluntarily.”

Editor-in-chief Georges Clemenceau, who would later go on to become prime minister, organized hundred of extra vendors for the day “J’accuse” was to be published; within a few hours, over 200,000 copies of the paper had been sold. Zola had sparked a veritable polemic: hailed by the Left, denounced by the Right, and triggering anti-Semitic riots across the country. The most serious attacks occurred in Algeria (then constitutionally part of France), where mobs sacked Jewish shops and caused tens of thousands of francs of damage. “At least six Jews were physically assaulted, one fatally injured; nine rioters and 47 police officers were seriously injured and one demonstrator was killed,” according to Drake.

In addition, Zola’s letter sparked a movement in which intellectuals, for the first time, gathered en masse to protest their indignation. After “J’accuse” was published, L’Aurore followed up with letters supporting Dreyfus, bearing the names of around 100 intellectuals, calling for a review of Dreyfus’ 1894 trial and the Esterhazy, the real villain but who had been protected by the military.

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By February 8, some three weeks after Zola’s original letter, more than 3,000 people had signed, mostly professors, artists, writers, doctors and lawyers from Paris. They included the likes of Claude Monet, Charles Péguy, Anatole France, Marcel Proust and Guillaume Apollinaire.

It should be remembered, however, that the story between the Dreyfusards—those who supported Dreyfus—and the anti-Dreyfusards wasn’t actually as clear-cut as it is often remembered. Historian Piers Paul Read wrote the following in The Telegraph:

“Zola himself has anti-Semitic stereotypes in his novels; so too the Dreyfusard authors Marcel Prévost and Anatole France. The officer who refused to ‘bury’ the evidence that Dreyfus was innocent was vocally anti-Semitic, whereas a number of the anti-Dreyfusards abhorred anti-Semitism.”

“Nor were the Dreyfusards all motivated by a disinterested passion for justice. Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, a prominent lawyer, refused to defend Dreyfus for fear that it would jeopardize his political career. As a friend of Edgar Demange, who did take the brief, he must have known that the conviction was unsound, but he kept his head down until it became politically advantageous to join the Dreyfusards.”

In the end, Dreyfus was pardoned and restored to the army in 1906, after having spent five years of a life sentence serving prison time on Devil’s Island.

More recently, the entire secret military file that was used to convict Dreyfus has been published online by the historical department of the French Ministry of Defense.

“The voluminous files on the case were archived in 1906, but they had never before been published in their entirety,” the New York Times wrote. “They have now been scanned, transcribed and made accessible to the general public without cost on the Internet. The dossier was never given to Captain Dreyfus or to his lawyer.”

Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.

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