Even more disturbing was a crisis that began in 1894. Known as the Dreyfus Affair, it scarred French politics and society for decades.

The Dreyfus Affair

The most serious and divisive scandal began in 1894. The scandal involved a French army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was charged with treason. His trial and conviction ignited a decades-long controversy known as the Dreyfus Affair.

Dreyfus on Trial

Alfred Dreyfus was accused of spying for Germany. After a military trial, Dreyfus was convicted of treason. The military claimed to have plenty of written evidence against Dreyfus. Yet neither Dreyfus nor his lawyer was allowed to see it. The army claimed secrecy was needed to protect France.

The injustice was rooted in anti-Semitism. The military elite detested Dreyfus, the first Jewish person to reach such a high position in the army. Although Dreyfus proclaimed his innocence, he was convicted and condemned to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, a desolate penal colony off the coast of South America.

Cartoon of a mustachioed man’s head with the body of a serpent. Title reads museum of horrors number 6, the traitor.

Analyze Political Cartoons

This 1899 caricature, The Traitor, shows Dreyfus as a lindworm, a mythical dragon or serpent with a poisonous bite. Why was this figure used to represent Dreyfus?

A Long Struggle for Justice

The Dreyfus Affair scarred French politics and society for decades. Royalists, ultranationalists, and Church officials charged Dreyfus supporters, or “Dreyfusards,” with undermining France. Paris echoed with cries of “Long live the army!” and “Death to traitors!” Dreyfusards, mostly liberals and republicans, upheld ideals of justice and equality in the face of massive public anger.

By 1896, new evidence pointed to another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, as the spy. Still, the army refused to grant Dreyfus a new trial.

In 1898, French novelist Émile Zola joined the battle. In an article headlined J'Accuse! (I Accuse!), he charged the army and government with suppressing the truth. As a result, Zola was convicted of libel, or the knowing publication of false and damaging statements. He fled into exile.

Eventually, the Dreyfusards made progress, and the army had to release its evidence against Dreyfus. Much of it turned out to be forged. In 1906, a French court cleared Dreyfus of all charges and reinstated him in the army. Even though justice had triumphed, the Dreyfus Affair left lasting scars.

Growing Anti-Semitism

The Dreyfus case reflected the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution had spread ideas about religious toleration. In Western Europe, some Jews had gained jobs in government, universities, and other areas of life. Others had achieved success in banking and business, but most struggled to survive in the ghettos of Eastern Europe or the slums of Western Europe.

By the late 1800s, however, anti-Semitism was again on the rise. Anti-Semites were often members of the lower middle class who felt insecure in their social and economic position. Steeped in the new nationalist fervor, they adopted an aggressive intolerance for outsiders and a violent hatred of Jews.

The Rise of Zionism

The Dreyfus case and pogroms in Russia stirred Theodor Herzl (HURT sul), a Hungarian Jewish journalist living in France. In the face of growing anti-Semitism, Herzl called for Jews to set up their own nation state. He helped spur the growth of Zionism, a nationalist movement devoted to rebuilding a Jewish state in the Jews' ancient homeland. Many Jews had kept this dream alive since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. In 1897, Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments