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Dreyfus Affair: Ideology in postcards

By Harry Ransom Center

The year 2006 marked the centenary of Jewish French military officer Alfred Dreyfus’s acquittal. The Harry Ransom Center has an extraordinary collection of postcards related to the affair. The postcards (about 100) were collected by a Parisian woman of that time who asked all her friends and relatives to send her any postcard concerning Dreyfus and his trials. This material now belongs to the large Carlton Lake collection of French manuscripts held by the Center. These postcards reveal the pervasiveness of the Dreyfus Affair in the popular culture of the time, in particular showcasing the range of anti-Dreyfus propaganda circulating throughout Paris.

Alfred Dreyfus.
Alfred Dreyfus.

In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was accused of treason and condemned by a military tribunal to degradation and deportation to the Ile de Diable, an island off the coast of French Guyana. Two years later, in 1896, the government found that the first condemnation was based on false documents and that a deeply indebted officer, Commandant Esterhazy (1847-1923), was more than likely the actual traitor. After a mockery of a trial, however, Esterhazy was acquitted.

At this point, prominent French intellectuals joined the Dreyfus cause (his innocence had been claimed by his relatives from the very beginning): Leon Blum, Charles Péguy, André Gide, Daniel Halévy, Marcel Proust, and especially Emile Zola, who published his famous article “J’accuse…!” in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898. Zola directly addressed the French president of that time, Felix Faure, and condemned the responsible military officers.

Anti-Dreyfus sentiment was also strong, and many in France reacted against the new trial. Anti-Semitic sentiment latent in French culture was awakened and produced a shift in national attitudes towards Jews that would not reach a climax until World War II. The Dreyfus affair is considered a crucial event in French history, one that crystallized a form of nationalism that, having found its scapegoat, could surface with all its vulgarity. The country was divided between supporters (Dreyfusards) and opponents (Antidreyfusards) of the victim. The Republic was in tumult, and the world watched with indignation the misprision of French justice and, in turn, French ideology.  Following the example of Zola, whose writings forced him to flee to Great Britain, Anatole France and others defended Dreyfus with passion, and at personal risk.

Dreyfus was finally given a new trial in 1899. Against all expectation and rationality, he was condemned to 10 years of exile, despite evidence against Esterhazy and several other officers. Facing the continuing outrage of the elite and the apathy of the people after five years of debate, the president gave Dreyfus amnesty. Dreyfus’s defenders claimed that this was not enough; he was not fully cleared of charges until July 21, 1906.

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