The Dreyfus Affair was a political and criminal justice scandal in France that went from 1894 to 1906. French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life in prison. In 1896, evidence arose that a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was the one responsible for Dreyfus’ alleged crimes. Dreyfus was not granted another trial until 1899, and the second trial divided French society between pro-Republican and anticlerical supporters of Dreyfus, and a pro-Army, mostly Catholic group who maintained he was guilty. The fascination with the case traveled to the United States, which covered the scandal in numerous newspapers over the years. Dreyfus was ultimately exonerated in 1906 and he was reinstated to the French army, but his case remained a notable example of antisemitism in the criminal justice system, showing how the press and public opinion can potentially manipulate a criminal case. Read more about it!
The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.
The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.
|October 15, 1894||Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French artillery Captain, is convicted of selling military secrets to Germany and sent to prison on Devil’s Island.|
|1896||French Chief of Staff Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart suspects Major Walsin Esterhazy of being a spy and doubts Dreyfus’ guilt.|
|January 13 - February 23, 1898||Emile Zola publishes an open letter in the French newspaper L’Aurore to the President of France titled J’Accuse!, defending Dreyfus and charging the government with forgery of evidence.|
|August 1898||Colonel Henry is arrested after confessing to forging evidence in the Dreyfus case, and he commits suicide in his jail cell.|
|September 1898||Esterhazy admits to authoring the original piece of evidence used to convict Dreyfus.|
|August-September 1899||Another Court-Martial is issued, and Dreyfus is found to be guilty again.|
|September 1899||President Loubet pardons Dreyfus on the condition that he not appeal his case.|
|July 12, 1906||Dreyfus is fully exonerated by the High Court.|