World History 1894

About the history of the world in 1894, the Dreyfus Affair tears through France.

TWO CENTURIES OF WORLD HISTORY: 1778-1978

1894

* The Dreyfus affair, which would rock France through the turn of the century, began to unfold. On July 20 a French army officer, Marie Charles Walsin Esterhazy, sent an unsigned letter to the German military attache in Paris, offering to supply Berlin with a copy of a French artillery manual and other assorted bits of military information. The note fell into French hands. Soon France intercepted another dispatch, this one from the Italian military attache in Paris, which warned of a French scoundrel with the initial D. Fastening on the clue, French counterespionage agents riffled through the personnel files and found under D the man they wanted-Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. A haughty, buttoned-down officer, Dreyfus was one of a handful of French Jews who had opted for a career in the anti-Semitic French army. A comparison of Dreyfus's handwriting with that on the purloined bordereau evinced vague similarities, and Dreyfus was promptly arrested. Professing his innocence, Dreyfus went on trial behind closed doors before a seven-man court-martial. Fabricated evidence bolstered by perjured testimony brought in a unanimous guilty verdict. Publicly stripped of his uniform, Dreyfus was then forced to walk the gauntlet and take the spit of former fellow officers before boarding a ship for Devil's Island. While Dreyfus was wasting away in jail, new evidence came to light pointing to the guilt of Esterhazy. But the military already had its man and opposed any tampering with its decision. Under pressure, though, Esterhazy was brought to trial, only to be acquitted in two days. The affair might have ended there if it had not been for the dramatic intervention of the famed French novelist Emile Zola. In an attempt to goad the government into a libel suit which would automatically reopen the Dreyfus case, Zola wrote a scathing letter to the president of France, which appeared in the newspaper L'Aurore. Under the headline "J'accuse," set in Second Coming type, he charged the War Dept. and the tribunal with conspiracy to frame Dreyfus. The tactic worked, and the government was forced to institute a new trial. Brought back from Devil's Island-a mere skeleton of the robust soldier he once was-Dreyfus sat through his second court-martial in 1899 convinced that he was at last to be exonerated. Instead the world was shocked when he was again found guilty-despite Esterhazy's full confession that he forged documents used as evidence. Ten days later the French government, seeing its system of justice held up to world ridicule, pardoned Dreyfus. In 1906, when passions had cooled further, the French authorities overturned the guilty verdict, reinstated Dreyfus in the army, and promoted him to major. They also conferred upon him the Legion of Honor.

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