As I’ve mentioned before here on the Margins, one of the weird facts about historical research (or maybe just about life in general) is that once a person or idea has come to your attention you find references to him/it/them everywhere. Lately the Dreyfus Affair has been popping up in my life. In email conversations with more than one writing friend and around the edges of subjects that don’t at first glance have anything to do with the infamous trial and exoneration of a man wrongly accused. When a story tracks me down with that kind of fervor, it’s time to share it with you.

On October 15, 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer in the French War Ministry, was arrested for selling military secrets to Germany. His trial, conviction, and subsequent exoneration became an international cause-celebre.

A military court found Dreyfus guilty in a trial notable for fabricated evidence and illegal procedures and sentenced him to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, off French Guiana. The French press, led by Édouard Drumont’s virulently anti-Semitic La Libre Parole, applauded the verdict. Drumont, in particular, claimed that Dreyfus’s actions illustrated the inherent disloyalty of French Jews.

Doubts about Dreyfus’s guilt grew once the irregularities of the trial became known. When Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart uncovered evidence that another officer, Major C. F. Esterhazy, was a spy and that the letter that had incriminated Dreyfus was in Esterhazy’s handwriting, the leftist press demanded a new trial. A military court acquitted Esterhazy and Picquart was arrested. Outraged, popular novelist Émile Zola published an open letter to the president of France, on January 13, 1898. Under the headline, J’Accuse, Zola denounced the army for covering up its mistaken conviction of Dreyfus. More than 200,000 copies sold on the day the letter appeared.

If Zola had hoped to catapult France into action on the Dreyfus case, he succeeded. The right-wing press exploded with diatribes against Zola, foreigners, and Jews. On the other side, more than 3,000 people signed a petition demanding a new trial for Dreyfus. Zola himself was brought to trial for criminal libel on February 7, in a case that kept the details of the Dreyfus affair in the international press for two weeks. Zola was sentenced to a year in jail and a 3,000-franc fine, but escaped to England.

In August of the same year, Major Hubert Joseph Henry, who had claimed to discover the letter that convicted Dreyfus, confessed he had forged documents in the case and suppressed others in an effort to convict a man that he believed to be a traitor. Henry then committed suicide. Faced with exposure, Esterhazy fled the country. Dreyfus’s appeal for a retrial was now assured.

Dreyfus was brought back from Devil’s Island for a new court martial in August, 1899. He was found guilty once more, but was pardoned with the right to continue his efforts to establish his innocence. In 1906, a civilian court of appeals reversed the conviction. Dreyfus was formally reinstated in the army and given the Legion of Honour. Recalled to active service in World War I, he commanded an ammunition column as a lieutenant colonel.

The French army did not declare Dreyfus innocent until 1995. Because evidently it’s hard to admit you’re wrong.

The moral of the story as far as I’m concerned? The path to justice begins when one person stands up and says “J’Accuse.”  Followed by a second, and a third, and–you get the idea.

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