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Anti-Semitism and the Alfred Dreyfus Affair

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Napoleon Bonaparte
The Cold War
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The term anti-Semitism, which means political, social, or economic hostility and activities directed against Jews, first came into use around 1879. This hostility is supposedly justified by a theory that was first developed in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. The theory states that the people of the Aryan stock are superior to those of the Semitic stock in both physique and character. This theory of racial superiority was used to justify the persecution, both religious and civil, of Jews that has existed throughout history (Antisem).

Even though the term anti-Semitism was first used in 1879, hostility towards Jews has existed for several thousand years. An example of this can be seen in the ancient Roman Empire. The Jews’ special forms of worship and religion were used against them by means of political discrimination, and few Jews gained Roman citizenship. Jews have been labeled as the killers of Christ since the fourth century AD. The rise of Christianity throughout the west only added to the discrimination against Jews on religious grounds, and the social anti-Judaism made its appearance. During the Crusades, great numbers of Jews were massacred, segregated in ghettos, and required to wear identifying marks which left them economically crippled by the restriction of business activities open to them. The French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment increased the idea of the nation state and the separation of church and state, and thus led to less religious and economic persecution for Jews (Antisem).

Anti-Semitism continued to grow in parts of western and central Europe in the late 19th century. The Jewish emancipation was completed in Germany in 1871 with the formation of the German Empire. Legal reforms had put an end to religious discrimination, but anti-Semitic political parties began to form after the Franco-Prussian War and the economic crash of 1873. At least one anti-Semitic party existed in Germany until 1933, when anti-Semitism became the official policy of the National Socialism (Nazism) government. In Austria, a Christian Socialist party supported basically the same anti-Semitic programs. In France, the separation of church and state issue led to some anti-Semitic principles held mainly by clergical and royalist factions. They based these principles on the racist theories formed in Germany. These theories circulated France by the numerous anti-Semitic publications, most notably the newspaper La Libre Parole, started by the Anti-Semitic journalist Edouard Drumont in 1892. Anti-Semitism remained strong in France until the liberation of Alfred Dreyfus in 1906 (Antisem).

In Eastern Europe, the conditions were no better and possibly even worse. Jews could not own property in Russia and could only live in certain territories. Pogroms, organized massacres, were responsible for the displacement and death of tens of thousands of eastern European and Russian Jews. The pogroms took place in Kiev, Odessa, and Warsaw following Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881and recurred after the Russian Revolution failed in 1905. Russian authorities blamed the Jews for the social instability that followed the assassination and revolution (Geary 793).

The United States was no exception to the 19th century anti-Semitism movement. The political use of anti-Semitism came into play during the 1896 presidential campaign, especially by the Populist party to appeal to their Christian constituents. Jews were an easy target for the Populist party because the party was made up of rural farmers and other small businessmen from areas with rarely any Jews. It was easy for the Populist to attack these unseen Jews and hold them responsible for farmers’ financial difficulties. The Jewish banking houses and the Jewish race was an easy target to form a political platform around (Marcy).

The Alfred Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain, was born to an Alsatian Jewish family that had left Alsace for Paris after Germany had annexed the province in 1871. He joined the army as an engineer and became the only Jew on the general staff. In 1894, papers were found in a wastebasket in a German military attaché that appeared to indicate that a French military officer was spying for Germany and providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus, because he was a Jew and probably because he had access to the type of information found, came under suspicion from the French army authorities and was an easy scapegoat. Dreyfus’ handwriting was declared by authorities to be similar to that found on the papers. Dreyfus was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial despite his protestations of innocence and the denied right to examine the evidence against him. Dreyfus was stripped of his rank in a ceremony that proved to be humiliating and shipped off to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a convict colony located near the coast of South America. Those on the political right of the spectrum used Dreyfus’ alleged espionage as evidence to the failures of the Republic. This incident was used in Edouard Drumont’s newspaper La Libre Parole to further evidence of Jewish treachery (Alfred Dreyfus).

Dreyfus found very few defenders because anti-Semitism was popular in the French army. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, an admitting anti-Semite, came to the rescue of Dreyfus not because of sympathy for him but because the evidence had been “railroaded” and the actual officer who committed espionage was still in a position to do further damage to the French. Picquart was appointed chief of army intelligence two years after Dreyfus had been convicted. Picquart had examined the evidence and found that the real guilty officer was a Major named Walsin Esterhazy, a Hungarian with German connections. Picquart soon realized that the French army was more concerned about its image over fixing its error. He continued to persist that the case be reopened, and the army transferred him to Tunisia. Before leaving Paris, Picquart told his side of the case to some friends. The left-wing Senator August Scheurer Kestner took up the case and announced to the Senate that Dreyfus was innocent and accused Esterhazy of committing the crime. The right-wing government refused to listen to the new evidence. Esterhazy was then acquitted by a military court despite the more than convincing evidence of this guilt, and Picquart was sentenced to serve 60 days in prison (Alfred Dreyfus).

The controversy that surrounded all of this became known as “the Affair.” It may have soon ended, but novelist Émile Zola published “J’accuse”. The article was a famous open letter to the president in a daily newspaper, and it talked about the army cover-up. The article made a powerful impression and sold 200,000 copies in Paris. Zola was later thrown in prison after being found guilty of libeling the army. The article aroused public passion and opinion more than ever including that of the leadership of the Catholic Church. Both had hostility towards the Republic and blamed the Jews and Freemasons for plotting a conspiracy to damage the prestige of the French army (Alfred Dreyfus). The nation soon became divided over the whole affair. Those who supported Dreyfus’ innocence became known as the pro-Dreyfusards, and they formed the left part of the political spectrum and supported the Republics responsibility to uphold justice and freedom. The anti-Dreyfsards made up the right side of the spectrum and were associated with the Catholic Church and the army (Geary 786).

Some time later, a military officer found additional information and documents that had been added to the Dreyfus file. He came to the conclusion that Hubert Henry, a lieutenant colonel, had forged the documents to give Dreyfus a new trial. This only strengthened the case against Dreyfus, and the lieutenant colonel committed suicide immediately after an interrogation by the army. Dreyfus was finally given a new court-martial in 1899 and again found guilty and condemned to 10 years in detention, but not without the observation that there were “extenuating circumstances” (Alfred Dreyfus).

Dreyfus agreed not to appeal, and he was finally pardoned by the president of France in September of 1899 but not allowed to return until the end of his 12-year sentence. Dreyfus demanded a fresh investigation in 1904 with a leftist government in power. In 1906, the court of appeal pronounced his complete innocence. He was allowed to return to Paris, twelve years after the case had begun. There, he was exonerated of the charges, restored to his former military rank, and made a knight in the Legion of Honour (Alfred Dreyfus).

The affects of the Dreyfus Affair, on a personal level, showed the ability of an individual to correct a mistake of injustice. On a national level, it brought new groups into the public life centering around the question of guilt or innocence of an individual. Leagues began to form on both the left and right of the political spectrum and raised their voices. The Dreyfus Affair showed the role and importance of the pressure put on the system of government by public opinion and the press (Geary 786).

Anti-Semitic Cartoons and Caricatures


La Libre Parole was Edouard Drumont’s newspaper that was used to further evidence of Jewish treachery after the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. The cartoon on the left pictures a Frenchman picking up Alfred Dreyfus by the seat of his pants with a pair of tongs. The caption on the bottom of the page reads, “Frenchmen, I’ve been telling you this everyday for eight years!”

The cartoon on the right pictures a Frenchmen appearing to bathe a Jew in a bath of money. The caption at the bottom of the page reads, “Jews, for us in France, blood alone can get out a stain like that!” The cartoon was suppose to be used to warn the treasonous Jews, who wash in money, that only a bloodbath will expiate their sins. The cartoon appeared 16 days after Dreyfus was named the traitor.


Dreyfus is pictured in this “Freak Show” as the mythological monster known as the Hydra. The Hydra is suppose to symbolize an evil that regenerates and which is formidable to overcome. This cartoon first appeared in 1900.


The cartoon on the left features a scale labeled: Innocence, Charenton (an insane asylum), Guilty, and Liar. Dreyfus is pictured on the scale, and it is pictured pointing to innocent. Esterhazy is pictured on the scale to the right. His scale points to guilty. The title of the cartoon is “The Dreyfus Weighing.” The dates on the scale represent the time period that “the Affair” took place. The cartoon appeared in 1906.


This cartoon pictures Nathan Rothschild (1777-1836) in the “Freak Show.” Rothschild was the founder of the London branch of the banking dynasty that financed England’s war against Napoleon. He’s caricatured as an avaricious dog, symbolizing a profiteer who made money on the battlefield of Waterloo over the corpses of patriotic Frenchmen. The cartoon appeared in 1900.

Works Cited

“Alfred Dreyfus and ‘The Affair’.” 19 Feb. 2004

“Antisem.” 19 Feb. 2004

Geary, Patrick, Mark Kishlansky and Patricia O’Brien. Civilizations in the West, Fifth Edition. New York: Longman, 2003: 786-793.

Marcy, Ben. “Anti-Semitism.” 19 Feb. 2004