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Learn About the Dreyfus Affair

 A Case of Espionage

Le Bordereau

court martial

stripped of his rank


In September 1894, Major Hubert Henry of the French intelligence service (Section de Statistique) obtained a document (the bordereau) recovered from the German Embassy in Paris. The document indicated that highly-classified information concerning artillery mobilization was being offered to Germany by a French officer.

On October 15, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer and recent graduate of the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre who was assigned to the General Staff for a probationary period, was told to appear at the Ministry of War in civilian dress. In the presence of a police Superintendent and another member of the intelligence service, Major Armand Du Paty de Clam ordered Dreyfus to write out a prepared text which Du Paty dictated. Dreyfus was then immediately arrested, taken into custody, and imprisoned in secrecy.

On October 29, an anonymous letter informed the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole that an officer of the General Staff had been arrested. One month later, the Minister of War, General Mercier, reacting to criticism of incompetence for his lack of response to the case, announced in the press he had “positive proof of Dreyfus’s treason.” A court-martial was held in the Cherche-Midi military prison.

Removed from public scrutiny, the Ministry of War furnished judges with a “secret file” of fabricated documents, not seen by the defense, which incriminated Dreyfus. He was sentenced to degradation and life imprisonment in a fortified place.

On January 5, 1895, Dreyfus was stripped of his rank in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire before officers and new recruits representing every regiment in Paris. A violent crowd of twelve thousand onlookers witnessed the ceremony, hurling insults.

Dreyfus was deported to Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guyana. Isolated and surrounded by a high-walled enclosure, a prey to vermin and scorpions, Dreyfus was shackled for extended periods of time. His diet, often consisting of foul food, was cooked and eaten in rusty cans.

Throughout his ordeal, Dreyfus maintained an unflinching loyalty to the French judicial system, a belief in the honor of the Army, and a devotion to his family. In France, his wife Lucie and brother Mathieu campaigned quietly on his behalf.

In 1896, the head of the French military intelligence service, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, became convinced that another officer, Major Esterhazy, had written the bordereau and that the case against Dreyfus was weak or nonexistent. His efforts to reopen the investigation, however, were rebuffed by members of the General Staff, and one officer, Major Henry, forged documents which reaffirmed Dreyfus’s guilt.

In 1897, senior officers warned Esterhazy that accusations would be made against him, and Mathieu Dreyfus made public his charge that Esterhazy was the author of the bordereau in Le Figaro. Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice-President of the French Senate and a staunch republican, also began a campaign for revision of the Dreyfus case. These efforts proved vain as Esterhazy was cleared after a court-martial and Scheurer-Kestner lost his post as Senate Vice-President.

On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola responded to these events with his famous open letter to Félix Faure, President of the Republic, published in Georges Clemenceau’s L’Aurore and headlined “J’Accuse...!,” in which he denounced the military for its lies and cover-ups.

Zola was condemned for libel and fled to England, amid furious media debate and fierce antisemitic rhetoric from anti-Dreyfusards. Picquart was dismissed from the army and later arrested for divulging military secrets.

 Revision at Rennes 



In August 1898, the suicide of the forger, Major Henry, followed by the flight of Esterhazy dramatically revived the Dreyfusard cause. When interviewed in exile, the following year, Esterhazy confessed to having been the author of the bordereau.

In September 1898, Lucie Dreyfus again submitted a request for revision of her husband’s case, which was accepted by the Court of Appeal. The election of a new president, Emile Loubet, and the formation of a new cabinet under Prime Minister Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, cleared a political path for resolution of the Affair. On June 3, 1899, the verdict of the first court-martial was declared null and void by the Court of Appeal, which ordered a second court-martial to take place in Rennes, Brittany.

Zola was allowed to return to France, Picquart was set at liberty, and Dreyfus began the long voyage from Devil’s Island to France, across the Atlantic, aboard the cruiser Sfax. After a twenty-day crossing, the prisoner was secretly landed under cover of night and, fearful of the hostile crowds awaiting him, authorities provided a heavy escort to the military prison at Rennes.

The court-martial opened under conditions of extreme tension during the first week of August 1899. Army representatives, barristers, and journalists, domestic and international, flocked to Rennes. Anti-Dreyfusard demonstrations broke out in the streets, and an attempt was made on the life of Fernand Labori, Dreyfus’s attorney.

Despite the disarray of the prosecution, the military judges, by a vote of five to two, again found Dreyfus guilty—“with extenuating circumstances.” Following the Rennes trial, Dreyfus remained a prisoner. On September 9, he was sentenced to ten further years of detention. The verdict reverberated around the world and was received with horror and scorn. The American press lashed the court-martial as a travesty of justice. International feeling ran high, and there were threats of a worldwide boycott of the World’s Fair scheduled to take place in Paris in 1900.

President Loubet offered Dreyfus a pardon and, on the advice of counsel and entreaties of family and friends, Dreyfus accepted the pardon on September 19, 1899.




Alfred Dreyfus and committed Dreyfusards remained steadfast in their resolve to establish his innocence. In 1901, the struggle continued with the publication of Zola’s Truth on the March, the first volume of Joseph Reinach’s History of the Dreyfus Affair, and Dreyfus’s own account, Five Years of My Life.

In 1903, Jean Jaurès, a representative in the French Parliament, appealed in the Chamber of Deputies against the baseless charges and false evidence used in the condemnation at Rennes. At the War Office the Minister of War, General Louis-Joseph André, discovered further evidence of Dreyfus’s innocence. Three years later the Supreme Court of Appeal, the highest legal body in France, declared the judgment of the court-martial of Rennes null and void.

By a law of July 13, 1906, Alfred Dreyfus was reintegrated into the Army and promoted to Major. Georges Picquart was promoted to Brigadier General. On July 21, in a courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, before a small group of military officials, troops, family, and friends, Alfred Dreyfus was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In August 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Dreyfus volunteered for active service. He fought in the heavy engagements at the Front, as did his son, Pierre. In September 1918, Alfred Dreyfus was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Dreyfus died in 1935.

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