He was formally accused of treason, demonized, insulted and arrested. The events of his life had a profound effect on European and Jewish affairs. Indeed, his name has become synonymous with “scapegoat.”

Despite the lack of hard evidence supporting his guilt, he was stripped of his military rank, sentenced to deportation, and caused to suffer tremendously—just because he was Jewish.

Ultimately he was acquitted of his crime and allowed to return to military service, but was not publicly declared innocent by the military until almost 100 years later.

He was Alfred Dreyfus.

Alfred Dreyfus, wrongfully convicted of treason, had a profound effect on European and Jewish affairs
Alfred Dreyfus, wrongfully convicted of treason, had a profound effect on European and Jewish affairs

Early Life and Family

Alfred Dreyfus was born on October 9, 1859, in Mulhouse, in the Alsace region of France, to Raphaël and Jeannette Dreyfus (née Libmann), the youngest of nine children. Raphaël, once a peddler, had become a successful textile manufacturer.

Jews had lived in the region since the fifth century, but the first stable Jewish communities in Alsace appeared in the eleventh century. It was decreed in 1215 by the Fourth Lateran Council that Jews were to wear specific clothes, in order to be recognizable, and were forbidden from participating in social or occupational groups such as guilds. In 1349, most Jews disappeared from Alsace due to violence and expulsion. The few that returned were often attacked and expelled due to blood libels or other fallacious accusations. The communities in this area were always fluctuating, but by the sixteenth century, 160 families lived there.1

By the time Dreyfus was born, Mulhouse was a very affluent city in the Alsace region.

Although Raphaël spoke Yiddish, German was also the first language of most of the Dreyfus children; only Alfred and one brother were educated in French.2 In 1871, Alsace was annexed by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War.3 After the annexation, the Dreyfus family moved to Paris.4

Entering the Military and Marriage

In 1878, Alfred Dreyfus, who had witnessed much war in his childhood, entered the École Polytechnique military school in Paris, where he trained for military service.5 He then went on to attend the artillery school at Fontainebleau, reaching the level of lieutenant in 1885. In 1889 he was promoted to captain and made adjutant to the director of the École Centrale de Pyrotechnie Militaire.6

As a captain, Dreyfus was accepted to the École Supérieure de Guerre in 1890.

A few days later, at the age of 31, he married 20-year-old Lucie Eugénie Hadamard,7 whose family was religious. They were married under a chupah in the main synagogue of Paris, by Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn.8 They had two children,9 Pierre10 and Jeanne.11

The children of Alfred Dreyfus, Pierre and Jeanne (dreyfus.culture.fr)
The children of Alfred Dreyfus, Pierre and Jeanne (dreyfus.culture.fr)

During this period, on January 1, 1893, Dreyfus was appointed intern to the Army Staff Office.12 He was respected for his mastery of “military theory and administrative procedures,” and was called "intelligent, hard-working and blessed with a prodigious memory.”13

The Arrest

“High Treason: Arrest of the Jewish Officer Alfred Dreyfus,” read the November 1, 1894, headlines of the La Libre Parole newspaper.

On September 27, 1894, a piece of paper with detailed reports of the positions of French soldiers and information about artillery was found in a trashcan in the German embassy.14 The handwriting on this document, thereafter called the bordereau,15 was compared to the handwriting sample of Dreyfus, after Major Armand du Paty de Clam ordered Dreyfus to write a prepared text that he dictated. Five experts analyzed the handwriting samples, but only three found them to be similar.16

Despite the lack of evidence, Dreyfus was arrested on October 15, 1894.17 The Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier, announced in November that he had “positive proof of Dreyfus’s treason.” The trial was held in private, without the public’s access. General Mercier provided the judges with fabricated incriminating documents.18 Dreyfus was then sentenced to deportation to a fortress.

His sentence was confirmed on December 31, 1894, by the review board,19 and on January 5, 1895, Dreyfus was formally cashiered:20 his rank insignia, buttons and braid were cut from his uniform, and his sword was broken.

Representation of the cashiering ceremony, where Dreyfus was stripped of his honor
Representation of the cashiering ceremony, where Dreyfus was stripped of his honor

An Island Prison

In accordance with the sentence of deportation, Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island, a former leper colony,21 off the coast of French Guyana. He was imprisoned in a small stone hut, surrounded by a high wall. Vermin and scorpions inhabited the same enclosure. Dreyfus was shackled for prolonged periods of time, and his food, usually foul, was cooked and eaten in rusty cans.

In total he endured 1517 days on Devil’s Island, from April 13, 1895, to June 9, 1899.22 Dreyfus, unaware of the great tumult happening in France on his behalf, was a model prisoner.23

New Evidence and The Affair

In France, the Dreyfus family began fighting for his release.

At the beginning of the ordeal, the French public supported the conviction; it was easy to assume that the Jewish soldier was the one at fault. Anti-Semitism was already growing very prevalent in that decade, and this event only furthered the already established consensus on Jews.24

Anti-Semitic newspaper headline, reads: “The Treason of the Jewish Dreyfus”
Anti-Semitic newspaper headline, reads: “The Treason of the Jewish Dreyfus”

Initial public support for the conviction was, in part, also due to the plethora of anti-Semitic organizations and publications, such as the newspaper La Libre Parole,25 edited by Édouard Drumont, publishing more articles in the first stages of the arrest than other groups. On November 6, 1894, La Libre Parole published the headline “The Treason of the Jewish Dreyfus.” At that time French Jews were called Israelites, not Jews. The very mention of the term “Jew” evoked the image of illegal immigrants from the Russian Pale of Settlement.26 Through articles and drawings, Dreyfus was presented as a symbol of the supposed disloyalty of Jews to France.27

Soon, though, sides began to form. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart,28 head of the French army’s counterintelligence unit, recognized Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy’s handwriting, not that of Dreyfus, on the bordereau and had him brought before a court-martial in 1897.29 Esterhazy, the true author of the document, was acquitted of the crime. He fled to Belgium and then to London to escape prosecution.30

Those against reopening the case were called the anti-Dreyfusards. The Dreyfusards, at first just the Dreyfus family, were those who pushed to reopen the case.31 The Jewish community support included Chief Rabbi Zadoc Kahn and others.32

On January 13, 1898, Emile Zola published his famous open letter headlined “J’Accuse” (“I Accuse”),33 denouncing the military for its fabrications and lies.34


Eventually, the very documents that had once “proved” Dreyfus to be guilty were exposed as forgeries.35 The case began to unravel, and after a new court-martial found Dreyfus guilty in September 1899, the President pardoned him. He was then reinstated into the military. In July 1906 a civilian court of appeals set aside the judgment of the court-martial, and Dreyfus was rehabilitated. But it was not until 1995 that the French military declared his innocence publicly.36

Later Years

Dreyfus continued to serve in the military until he requested retirement on June 26, 1907. However, he was called up again at the beginning of World War I on August 2, 1914. Dreyfus was promoted to lieutenant-colonel of the Reserves in the fall of 1918, and was made an officer in the Legion of Honor by Clemenceau in July of 1919.

His grandchildren remembered him as distant, often crying out at night because of his experiences.37 Dreyfus died at his home in Paris on July 12, 1935, and was buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery on July 14, 1935.38.

Lasting Effects

The Dreyfus Affair brought to light the age-old evils of anti-Semitism, abuse of the innocent, and the struggle for power. Due to the fight between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards, and the miscarriage of justice, parts of society began to change. The press began to be used as a weapon, and it became a key player in politics and social change for future decades.

Jews were left wondering how it was possible that in one of the most modern countries such great injustice was able to be done. The Affair demonstrated that despite promises of equality and progress, Jews were not able to fully integrate into European society. Reportedly, the Dreyfus Affair also inspired Theodor Herzl and his dream of Zionism. Herzl had been sent from Vienna to represent the Neue Freie Presse, as were journalists from most leading newspapers in Europe. As he saw the case unfold, he realized that the methods used by the government were unjust and that the case itself was unfair. He felt that only by having their own homeland could Jews receive respect from the other peoples of the world.

Despite all that he suffered, Alfred Dreyfus never lost his love for his country and his search for truth. Even while suffering on Devil’s Island, he never lost hope and he did not become embittered by his situation. After he was acquitted of wrongdoing, he even returned to the organization that had unjustly sentenced him to many years of suffering, and once again served with distinction and pride.