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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > February 2017 > The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair

Anna Harris unravels a 19th-century miscarriage of justice of mammoth proportions, which divided a nation and shook the world

THE INNOCENT TRAITOR

IT WAS A SET-UP Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing French military secrets to the Germans, fueling the rise of anti-Semitism
ALAMY X1, GETTY X2

The evidence was flimsy. But, no matter how many times he protested his innocence, the jury were decided. In January 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. The sentence was brutal – life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a hellish penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. But why was this man – later shown to be innocent of all charges – targeted as a traitor?

The origins of this miscarriage of justice milestone go back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. France had suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hands of a coalition of German states, led by Prussia, which marked the end of France’s dominance in Europe. Napoleon III was dethroned, William I of Prussia was proclaimed emperor at Versailles, and Germany annexed the Alsace and Lorraine regions of northeast France – a move that aroused a deep desire for revenge in the French people that remained for decades.

In the aftermath, questions were asked and rumours abounded. The French were convinced that a recent reorganisation of its army – which even had the newly invented mitrailleuse, an early machine gun – had made it far superior to the German forces. How, then, could the war have been lost? Was sabotage afoot? Could French military plans have been passed to the enemy by a secret agent?

THE BATTLE WAS LOST: Captain Dreyfus in his artillery officer uniform
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February 2017
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