Court-Martial of French Officer Alfred Dreyfus

About the court-martial of French officer of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew who was scapegoated when news came of a spy in the French military.

ALFRED DREYFUS (1859-1935)

For a French Jew of peasant stock, Dreyfus was a rarity. He had overcome great obstacles to become a commissioned officer on the general staff of the French military. France, in the 1890s, seethed with internal turmoil. Into this caldron of uncertainty, Martin Brucker, a spy for the statistical section of the general staff, dropped a bombshell: a letter signed with the initial "D" and stolen from the German embassy. This bordereau indicated a spy was operating within the elite of the general staff.

From the Minister of War, Gen. Auguste Mercier, down through the ranks, no one had the slightest notion of the spy's identity. To look among highborn French officers was unthinkable. Alfred Dreyfus would be the perfect scapegoat. He was an outsider, a Jew, and his name began with the letter "D."

The Court-Martial. On December 19, 1894, the trial began in an old gaslit palace on the rue Cherche-Midi. Present were 7 high-ranking army officers acting as judges: Gen. Charles Gonse, deputy chief of the general staff; Maj. Du Paty de Clam; Maj. Georges Picquart, observer for Auguste Mercier; Alfred Dreyfus; and his attorney, Edgar Demange. The charge: high treason. The proof: lies, hearsay, and a letter allegedly written by Dreyfus.

Picquart advised Mercier that the prosecution's evidence wouldn't hold up. Mercier became worried. The statistical section went to work. A "secret file" was produced that contained irrefutable evidence of men high in government whose names could not be mentioned because of national security. So deftly and dramatically was this handled in chambers that the decision of the judges was unanimous. Alfred Dreyfus was declared guilty and sentenced to Devil's Island for life.

Newspapers were ecstatic. Voices of the French people echoed through the streets of Paris: "Traitor, coward, death to the dirty Jew!"

After 12 years of unremitting effort by Dreyfus's wife, Lucy, his brother Mathieu, French politician Scheurer-Kestner, statesman Georges Clemenceau, author Emile Zola, and others, Dreyfus was acquitted.

Significance. The court-martial of Alfred Dreyfus demonstrated the power of the military to prosecute unjustly, and though many reforms have since been made, in the words of Clemenceau: "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music."

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