Alfred Dreyfus and France: A Crisis of Identity

Written by Luke Neill

Image: Devil’s Island, Encyclopaedia Britannica,, accessed: 21 October 2018.

On the 14 April 1895, Alfred Dreyfus arrived on the Devil’s Island, a French penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He had been sent there for life imprisonment as its sole prisoner. Bound in chains in a small stone hut for most of the day, his only solace was the infrequent and strongly censored communication with his wife Lucie. In the months preceding his imprisonment, Dreyfus had been convicted of treason for exchanging secret information about the French military with the German Embassy in Paris. He was publicly stripped of his rank as Major in front of a baying crowd. But in 1906, after almost ten years of imprisonment, he was exonerated of all charges.

    Far from being a badly handled mistake on behalf of the French authorities, the Dreyfus Affair is important because it constituted one of the most influential miscarriages of justice in modern history, the implications of which were felt not just by Dreyfus in his brutal confinement, but across the whole spectrum of French society at the time.

    The details of Dreyfus’s story, however, are complicated. When evidence emerged that information about French artillery positions was transferred with the Germans, the French secret police looked for suspects in the French military. Dreyfus, a Jew, was immediately singled out and accused. When new evidence emerged that there was a much more credible suspect – a Major, Walsin-Esterhazy, who had serious debts and a history in counterintelligence – it was immediately silenced. When public outcry forced the trial of Esterhazy, he was very quickly acquitted. More evidence was produced through the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picqaurt, which led to another trial of Dreyfus at which he was again convicted of treason, largely because of documents that had been fabricated by the military’s General Staff. After the trials of several other men, the splitting of France into two separate camps and immense pressure placed on the French government, the Supreme Court finally reversed the verdict over 10 years after the initial conviction. The reasons why such an injustice happened can be put down to a clash in two separate identities: that of Dreyfus, and that of the French governing class.

    France at the time was in the throes of a transformation of its identity. Defeat of the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 and the consequent loss of Alsace and the Moselle was still a source of humiliation for many at the time of the Affair. Moreover, at a time when British imperial hegemony and economic expansion in the United States was starting to take off, it would have been increasingly hard to reconcile the triumphant republican values espoused by the Revolution with the military defeats, economic woes, and internal divisions of what was now the Third French Republic. The alliance in 1894 between France and Russia was evidence enough of this – France did not have the strength nor the resources to face Prussia and was forced to settle on an alliance with a Tsarist autocracy to level the field.

    This made the nature of the secret information leaked to the Germans especially important. Knowledge of collusion between the French military and the German Embassy soured relations between countries that were already strained. This left gaping insecurities within the French military, which, knowing that it was one of their own who must have traded the information, took the first opportunity they could to arrest any potential conspirator, avoiding any accusation that they had not dealt swiftly with the problem. Public opinion was equally important. The banishment of the prime suspect to a desolate rock in South America was supposed to be symbolic of the military’s resolution in the matter, but in fact exemplified the vulnerability of the military to any sort of threat. Dreyfus therefore involuntarily found himself at the behest of a deeply insecure state, which needed to find a convenient scapegoat for the scandal.

    However, this explanation only explains half of the story. Dreyfus was an affluent Alsatian Jew. As the Affair progressed, it became more and more obvious that the conviction and imprisonment of Dreyfus was not a question of innocence or guilt, but was more the need to convict someone in order to seem in control. The fact that this person was a Jew was a calculated effort, for it was assumed that no one would care enough to come to his defence. These beliefs reflected wider trends of anti-Semitism amongst the French military elite, which was distinct as a group in its largely Catholic and anti-republican views. Part of this stemmed from the suspicion that Jews were reaching increasingly higher ranks and in greater numbers, despite the fact that only 300 Jews out of 40,000 had been promoted to Officers, which shows how far suspicion of Jews had gone. Very soon two separate factions developed: the Dreyfusards, the group led by prominent intellectuals like Emile Zola who defended Dreyfus’s innocence; and the anti-Dreyfusards, who comprised the military classes and were supported vehemently by anti-Semitic newspapers such as La Libre Parole. This dichotomy divided the country, with anti-Semitism at the forefront of the debate.

    Calling the Dreyfus Affair ‘a crisis of identities’ could perhaps be seen as an arbitrary and unhelpful classification, but it is a useful way of conveying the conflicts in French society at the time. On one side, there were the traditional, largely Catholic military classes who resented the laicisation of society and remained embittered by France’s standing and the humiliation of the 1870s; and on the other side, the progressive, intellectual wing who stood up for France’s republican past and promoted the onset of a more tolerant society. In its simplest form it reflected the age-old dispute between the New and the Old orders – would the liberal thinkers who rallied so passionately behind a mere Jew, trump the traditional hierarchy that tried so hard to falsely convict one for the sake of their own reputation? As questions of France’s uneasy standing in European politics arose, this traditional wing risked further discredit as the ones who had led France to economic and military defeat. The ideological conflict that this produced found its outlet in Dreyfus.

    But this was also a crisis in the Jewish identity itself. For Dreyfus, his assumption of guilt rested on him being a Jew. France had a burgeoning problem of anti-Semitism, with the establishment of the Anti-Semitic League of France in 1890 and widely held Catholic suspicions catalysing the proliferation of similar beliefs across French society. Even after the dismissal of the charges, when Dreyfus was reinstated into the military and eventually became the Minister of War, the impact of the Affair on the Jewish population was irreversible. The wanton disregard for the rights of Dreyfus as a Jew, therefore, provided an uneasy precursor to anti-Semitism more generally in the twentieth century. But the idea that ethnic, cultural or religious identities can foster some form of collective culpability that manifests itself in one individual, is very much relevant to the modern day too. Xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism all rest on the basic assumption that the individual is representative of a wider and often inaccurate ‘group’ identity. Whether or not you relate this phenomenon to Dreyfus or identity politics in the modern day, the dangers of misrepresentation cannot be overstated. For any kind of different ‘groups’ to co-exist, the cult of collective identity must be reconciled with the individual. Dreyfus, more than most, provides the clearest example of the failure of this process.


Harris, Ruth, The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the affair that divided France (London: Penguin 2010).

Cohn-Sherlock, Dan, Anti-Semitism: A History (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002).

Lindemann, Albert S., Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2000).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: