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BRIA 11 1 b The Dreyfus Affair and the Press

CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Right in Action

Winter 1994 (11:1)
Updated July 2000

The Right to an Impartial Jury Trial and a Free Press

BRIA 11:1 Home | Is a Fair Trial Possible in the Age of Mass Media? | The Dreyfus Affair and the Press | Sex, Crime, and Jazz-Age Journalism

The Dreyfus Affair and the Press

In the summer of 1894, a French army officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, walked into the German embassy in Paris and offered his services as a spy. Esterhazy was deeply in debt from playing the stock market and could see no other way to raise cash quickly. Over the next few months, Esterhazy passed on French military secrets to the Germans. One of his unsigned handwritten memos told about an artillery device and a new field manual. Somehow, this memo fell into the hands of the French espionage (spy) office.

French military officials did not think the memo revealed important information. But they became alarmed that a spy, probably an artillery officer, was operating inside their own general staff. Army investigators decided to compare the handwriting on the spy document with samples of writing from suspected officers. Investigators saw a similarity in the handwriting on the memo and that of a 35-year-old officer assigned to the General Staff, Captain Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus made an easy target for the investigators. A stickler for military rules and regulations, Dreyfus had not gained many friends among the officer corps. More importantly, he was a Jew. Anti-semitism (anti-Jewish attitudes) infected much of French society. It was particularly strong in the tradition-bound military.

The army secretly arrested and interrogated Capt. Dreyfus, but top army leaders were unsure how to proceed. They knew the case against Dreyfus was weak. Then on November 1, 1894, a Paris newspaper broke the story with the headline, "High Treason: Arrest of the Jewish Officer, A. Dreyfus." The newspaper, La Libre Parole ("Free Speech"), was well-known for its strong anti-semitic views. The newspaper’s editor, Edouard Drumont, stated that his information about Dreyfus had come from an anonymous source within the army. Drumont wrote that Dreyfus had made "a full confession" and that there was "absolute proof that he sold our military secrets to Germany."

The sensational revelations in the press pushed the army to prosecute Capt. Dreyfus. His court martial and the events that followed tore France apart for 12 years. To a large extent, the highly competitive French press created, continued, and finally brought to an end the Dreyfus Affair.

The Dreyfus Affair Unfolds

News of Dreyfus’ arrest and upcoming court martial produced a storm of newspaper stories. Newspapers bombarded the public with details of supposed evidence, unfounded charges, wholly invented events, rumors, and gossip. Leading this press frenzy were a number of anti-semitic journals like Drumont’s paper. Drumont wrote on November 3, 1894, "What a terrible lesson, this disgraceful treason of the Jew Dreyfus!"

By the time of the court martial, most of the public believed Dreyfus was a traitor. The military excluded the press and public from his trial. It kept the written accusation against Dreyfus secret even from him. Despite the weak evidence, seven army-officer judges unanimously found him guilty. He was sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, a fortified prison off the coast of South America, where he would be held in solitary confinement.

Before being shipped to Devil’s Island, the army put Dreyfus through a humiliating ceremony known as a "degradation." In front of assembled troops, scores of journalists, and 20,000 citizens, he was stripped of his military insignia and his sword was broken in half.

Dreyfus’ family, particularly his brother, Mathieu, refused to give up. Mathieu and a helpful army officer began to turn up evidence pointing to Major Esterhazy as the real spy and traitor. In November 1897, a newspaper published a copy of the original spy memo alongside samples of Esterhazy’s writing. The writing on both appeared to be identical.

As the case against Dreyfus began to unravel, the army officers responsible for his prosecution closed ranks. After all, they reasoned, the credibility and honor of the entire French army were at stake. One of the officers, Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry, had perjured himself at Dreyfus’ court martial. He now created false documents incriminating Dreyfus and leaked them to sympathetic newspapers.

A Press War Erupts

Unable to ignore the mounting evidence against Major Esterhazy, the army was forced to court martial him in January 1898. But if Esterhazy were found guilty, this would mean that important army officers had either made a terrible mistake, or even worse, had lied. Unwilling to accept these consequences, the court martial unanimously found Esterhazy—the real spy—innocent.

A few days after Esterhazy was acquitted, one of the country’s most famous novelists, Emile Zola, published a letter to the president of France accusing high-ranking army officers of conspiring to convict an innocent man. Zola’s now famous letter entitled "I accuse" was printed in a pro-Dreyfus newspaper published by Georges Clemenceau (who would become the premier of France during World War I).

The publication of Zola’s letter provoked a violent reaction. Fist fights broke out on the floor of the French national legislature. Riots occurred all over France. Mobs stoned Jewish shops and homes. Men fought duels, including one between Clemenceau and Drumont, the anti-semitic newspaper editor (all six shots missed). Zola himself was convicted of libel, but he fled to England to avoid imprisonment.

Zola’s "I Accuse. . . !" also proved to be the opening shot in a bloodless press war that pitted pro- and anti-Dreyfus journalists, illustrators, and photographers against one another. The pro-Dreyfus press emphasized getting at the truth, reason, and justice for the prisoner of Devil’s Island. The anti-Dreyfus journalists viewed themselves as defenders of the army and the security of the nation. Many of the anti-Dreyfus forces believed that a "Jewish Syndicate," which supposedly wanted to destroy France, was behind the Dreyfus Affair.

The press war erupted when a new style of journalism was beginning to flourish in France (and in other parts of the world including the United States). High-speed presses enabled newspapers to be printed in large numbers. In Paris, nearly 100 newspapers and journals competed for readers. "Dueling newspapers" emerged specifically to attack and counterattack one another over the latest revelations in what now was simply called "The Affair."

Newly invented graphic processes allowed newspapers and other publishers to mass-produce photographs and other types of illustrations. The press war generated numerous posters, cartoons, caricatures, comic strips, picture postcards, board games, and other items that were often little more than pro- or anti-Dreyfus propaganda. One famous poster portrayed Dreyfus as a snake-like monster with a sword labeled, "The Traitor," piercing his body.

The Affair Ends

Through the summer of 1898, most of the press and the public still remained anti-Dreyfus and pro-army. But in August one of the false documents manufactured by Colonel Henry was shown to be a forgery. Colonel Henry confessed and then committed suicide. Hearing about this, the spy Esterhazy panicked and fled to England.

In June the following year, a Paris journalist found and interviewed Esterhazy in London. Esterhazy admitted that it was he who had written the spy memo that had started the whole Dreyfus Affair. But he claimed that he had done this on orders from his superior to prove that Dreyfus was a traitor.

On June 3, 1899, the day that Esterhazy’s confession appeared in the Paris papers, the government decided to bring Dreyfus back from Devil’s Island for a new court martial. Dreyfus had been in prison for four-and-a-half years.

Dreyfus’ second court martial was probably the world’s first big media event. Hundreds of journalists, photographers, celebrities, and ordinary people from many nations wanted to witness the trial. Reporters covering the proceedings tried, but were not permitted, to take motion pictures (invented a few years earlier).

On September 9, 1899, in a 5-2 judgment, Dreyfus was again found guilty. This time he was sentenced to only 10 years in prison due to "extenuating circumstances."

About a week later, amid a storm of international protest over the guilty verdict, the French government decided to pardon Dreyfus. For the next half-dozen years, Dreyfus and his supporters in the press continued to try to prove his innocence. Finally, he was granted another court hearing. In 1906, the highest court in France cleared Dreyfus and reversed his convictions.

The army reinstated Dreyfus and, to make amends, made him an officer in the Legion of Honor. He received this high military honor in a ceremony that took place on the same grounds where he had been degraded nearly 12 years before. Dreyfus, who eventually rose to the rank of major, stayed in the army until retirement and even returned to serve his country during World War I. He died on July 11, 1935, and was buried on Bastille Day, the French patriotic holiday.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Why do you think Dreyfus was found guilty at his two court martials? Do you think anti-semitism played a role? Explain your answers.
  2. What arguments can you make that the press played a negative role in the Dreyfus Affair? What arguments can you make that the press played a positive role?
  3. What steps, if any, could the French government have taken to ensure that Dreyfus had a fair trial? Explain your answer.
  4. What similarities do you see between press coverage of the Dreyfus Affair and press coverage of crimes and trials in the United States today?

For Further Information

J’accuse: The Dreyfus Affair: A web site containing extensive hisotrical background of the Dreyfus affair, including biographies of the principal players, a brief history, a biblography, and more.

A C T I V I T Y

Visualizing the Dreyfus Affair

In this activity, small groups will each prepare a visual presentation to the class on a person, event, or theme related to the Dreyfus Affair.

A. Each group should decide what person, event, or theme will provide the subject for its visual presentation. Group members should also agree on the type of visual they will create. This might be a large poster, series of political cartoons or caricatures, comic strip, game, illustrated postcard set, photo essay, role play, video, or multi-media presentation.

B. Group members should assign one another various responsibilities for the project, e.g. director, researcher, artist/actor, writer, narrator.