People being wrongly convicted for crimes they have not committed is not uncommon. It has happened in the past and it still happens today, although probably to a much lesser extent. But in the past, an individual who was wrongfully convicted barely had any support system like human rights groups or online campaigns, like we have today, which could rally public opinion on behalf of a prisoner whose future was at stake. One such case was the Dreyfus affair, which has acquired infamy as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of France.
The year was 1894. France’s republican government was struggling to assert its power. Its failure to quell terrorism had further eroded its credibility and the President himself was stabbed by an Italian anarchist. So when Captain Dreyfus was convicted of spying, the triumphant press seized upon this episode as another instance of the government’s ineptitude.
On October 15, 1894, Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in a military court-martial and sentenced to life in prison for his alleged crime of passing military secrets to the Germans. The Jewish artillery captain was convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence in a highly irregular trial. He was found guilty, stripped of his rank and shipped off to begin his life sentence at the notorious Devil’s Island Prison in French Guyana four months later. Twelve years later, following a great political upheaval, Dreyfus was declared innocent, and awarded the Legion of Honour.
The Dreyfus case bore testimony to the anti-Semitism permeating France’s military ranks but what was more shocking was that many in France, across the spectrum of society, praised the ruling. The case continued to attract public interest until 1896, when fresh evidence implicated French Major Ferdinand Esterhazy as the guilty party. The army’s credibility was at stake and it brazenly attempted to suppress this information until a national uproar ensued, and the military was left with no recourse but to put Esterhazy on trial. However, a court-martial held in January 1898 acquitted Esterhazy within an hour. This was a shocking travesty of justice and the military’s behaviour was reprehensible. It was a matter of time before someone spoke up strongly and called a spade a spade.
In response, the French novelist Émile Zola published an open letter entitled ‘J’Accuse’ on the front page of the Aurore, which accused the judges of being under the thumb of the military and by the evening, 200,000 copies were sold. But instead of treating his accusations as a wake up call and taking the military to task, the authorities did the unthinkable — they started hounding Zola. Zola was sentenced to jail for libel but managed to escape to England. The case now heightened the sharp divisions within French society with dangerous implications for the stability of the nation.
Nationalists and members of the Catholic Church supported the military, while republicans, socialists, and advocates of religious freedom lined up to defend Dreyfus.The lies and manufactured evidence against Dreyfus finally began to unravel.
In 1898, Major Hubert Henry, discoverer of the original letter attributed to Dreyfus, finally admitted that he had forged much of the evidence against Dreyfus and then committed suicide and soon afterwards, Esterhazy fled the country. The military now had its back against the wall and was forced to order a new court-martial for Dreyfus. But they were still not willing to admit their complicity in the wrongful conviction and in 1899, Dreyfus was found guilty in another show trial and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
However, the new French administration pardoned him, and in 1906 the supreme court of appeals overturned his conviction. The only silver lining in the Dreyfus affair was that it brought about greater liberalisation in France, a reduction in the power of the military, and a formal separation of the Church and State.
Dreyfus’s incarceration on Devil’s Island had taken a severe toll on his health and he was granted retirement from the army in October 1907 at the age of only 48.
However, he re-entered the army as a reserve officer Major of Artillery during the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He served throughout the war and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Instead of nursing a grudge against the army, he valued his duty to his country much more, which is a testimony to his character. He died in Paris aged 75 in 1935, 29 years after his official exoneration.
The inscription on his tombstone is in Hebrew and French and it reads —
Here Lies Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, Officer of the Legion of Honour. 9 October 1859 – 12 July 1935.
The army, however, did not publicly declare his innocence until 1995.