Following the traumatic military defeat to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, French society began looking for scapegoats. A few decades after the war, a cleaning woman discovered a handwritten list offering Germany confidential French military information. The person to bear the blame for this piece of paper became a French-Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus.
Although France was the first nation to emancipate its Jewish population, anti-Semitism was still strong in the nineteenth century French army. Being the only Jewish officer in the French Army's General Staff, Dreyfus was quickly singled out, put on trial in 1894 and found guilty. The only evidence against Dreyfus was the handwriting on the piece of paper, which prosecutors falsely claimed resembled that of Dreyfus.
In a humiliating public ceremony attended by thousands of people, Dreyfus was stripped of his rank and had his army medals ripped off his uniform. He was then walked through a hostile crowd. Dreyfus was separated from the angry mob by a fence: had he been not, he would have likely been torn to pieces.
One of the most striking details about the Dreyfus Affair is the fact that when Alfred Dreyfus was led through this crowd, the people chanted and yelled out not "death to Dreyfus", but rather "death to the Jews" and various anti-Semitic slurs.
Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island off the coast of South America. A few years after his imprisonment, a fellow officer by the name of Georges Picquart came to a realization that the note used as evidence against Dreyfus actually belonged to French Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.
Picquart presented his findings to the French Army. However, the French government was quick to cover up the newfound evidence, in order to avoid embarrassment. Instead, the Army relieved Picquart of his post and sent him to Tunisia when he raised the issue again. Walsin Esterhazy was tried behind closed doors and acquitted of all charges.
In 1899, it was discovered that a lieutenant colonel named Hubert Henry forged some of the documents used against Dreyfus in the trial. Although a new trial was issued, Alfred Dreyfus was once again found guilty. The same year, he was pardoned by the President of France. In 1906, he was exonerated of all charges and given back his army rank.
The Dreyfus Affair is an important point in the history of the Jews. The fact that such an event could take place in what at the time was seen as one of the more seemingly liberal and tolerant countries in the world, led many Jews to question whether true emancipation and assimilation into European society was really possible. The hostility of both the French public and the French press seemed to reinforce the view. An Austro-Hungarian Jewish reporter by the name of Theodore Herzl witnessed the events of the Dreyfus Affair. The incident would motivate Herzl in creating the idea of an independent Jewish state devoid of anti-Semitism – the modern Zionist movement.
The Dreyfus Affair was not the last time the Jews were falsely blamed for a military failiure of their country. Following World War I, the Jews of Germany became the scapegoats for their country's defeat. This time there would be no trial, but instead the murder of millions.