• Kevin Luo

Antisemitism in History - The Dreyfus Affair

Racial injustice and religious discrimination have roots deep within history, but that does not justify its existence; in fact, inequality on such matters is something that 21st-century society should work to eradicate as education and information become more widely-available then ever.

The injustice today can be partially traced back to the 1870s when imperialism in Africa and Asia became popular and lucrative for the European countries,k who at the time had superior weapons and transportation. The ideologies behind imperialism were mostly Social Darwinism, of which the European explorer used to justify their exploitation of the natural resources in Africa and Asia. This soon led to the development of paternalism in the late 1800s, a belief that stated it was up to the white man to lead over other people. The poem The White Man's Burden by English poet and journalist Rudyard Kipling is representative of the discriminatory views held by the Imperialists white. With the situation deteriorating in both Africa and Asia, it was not all sunshine and roses in Europe either as antisemitism raged on. One such example is the infamous political scandal that starts in France in 1894 - The Dreyfus Affair.

Alfred Dreyfus

Image via the New York Times

Alfred Dreyfus was an Alsatian French Artillery officer in the French-army with a Jewish-descent. After being appointed captain in 1889, Dreyfus remained his position until 1894, when he was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was soon arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment by December of the same year. The tension elevated when the news reached the public predominantly through anti-Semitic groups such as La Libre Parole, a newspaper press that was able to sway public opinions by using Dreyfus to attack Jews and accuse them as unloyal.

Military degradation of Alfred Dreyfus shown on the cover of Le Petit Journal


The legal proceeding used against Dreyfus was irregular and only specious evidence was provided as his family member continues to deny his guilt. The decision took a turn in 1896 when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, the French minister of war, found Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy's handwriting on the evidence provided. However, Major Esterhazy suppressed any new evidence and the biased military courts soon freed him within just two days of trials. Other than dropping the charges against Dreyfus, the military court intensified it by adding charges such as forging documents to Dreyfus. The court's action angered French Novelist Emilie Zola, who wrote an open letter J'Accuse defending Dreyfus and accusing the injustice court. The letter and the publicity divided the people of France into two groups, those who condemn Dreyfus such as Edouard Drumont, editor of La Libre Parole, and those who support Dreyfus's innocence.

Zola's effort was effective in pressurizing the court to reopen the case when Dreyfus was returned to France for another trial in 1899. By 1906, Dreyfus's charges were dropped and he was subsequently released before joining the army again and being appointed as major. Dreyfus will go on to serve in the army through World War I and till his death in 1935 as Lieutenant-Colonel. The 12 year-long affairs from 1894 to 1908 divided French and increased support for the republican-order with the strengthening of parliamentary democracy. The Dreyfus affair also spread resentment towards Jews within the society through misleading publications and made Anti-Semitism a clear issue within society.

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