On 22 December 1894, after a four-day trial at the Cherche-Midi prison in Paris, seven judges unanimously convicted Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer, of collusion with a foreign power. Born in Mulhouse, Alsace, Dreyfus was a patriotic and independently wealthy soldier of Jewish heritage. He was sentenced to the harshest penalty under French law: permanent exile in a walled fortification.


The discovery, three months earlier, of a ripped-up, handwritten note – the bordereau – in a wastebasket by a French intelligence agent operating inside the German Embassy, had shocked the nation. Ever since Germany’s annexation of France’s easternmost regions, Alsace and Lorraine, in 1871, there had been deep mistrust between Paris and Berlin. The note, addressed to the German military attaché, served to validate this paranoia. Its contents divulged information on changes to French artillery regulations, the outcome of a weapons test, and plans to conquer Madagascar.

Suspicion pointed to a spy on France’s general staff, with Dreyfus soon identified as the culprit. His upbringing in a part of France long exposed to Germanic influences, as well as his Jewish ancestry, singled him out as an anomaly in a military culture rife with anti-Semitism and hungry to avenge the defeat of 1871.

Exile and conspiracy

Two weeks after his conviction, on 5 January 1895, Dreyfus was subjected to a humiliating “degradation” on the courtyard of the École Militaire. His sword was snapped across the knee of a towering warrant officer, and his epaulettes and stripes were unceremoniously torn from his uniform. Baying crowds screamed “Judas!” and “Death to the Jews!”, but Dreyfus remained stoic throughout the ordeal, exclaiming: “Innocent! Innocent! Vive la France! Long live the Army!” before being marched off.

Dreyfus imprisoned, writing at a desk
Dreyfus was subsequently imprisoned on Devil’s Island, French Guiana, where he endured hellish conditions. (Image by Getty Images)

That April, he arrived on Devil’s Island, a former leper colony off French Guiana, to begin his sentence. There, he endured appalling mistreatment. Imprisoned within a purpose-built stone hut measuring a mere 4 x 4 metres, Dreyfus was fed rotting pork, manacled to his bed at night, and had his view of the sea obstructed by a palisade. Guards were ordered not to interact with him, and his ability to speak languished.

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Back in France, events were taking a surprising turn. Graphology had been used to convict Dreyfus, with alleged “experts” confirming a match between his handwriting with that on the bordereau. However, in July 1896, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, the army’s new intelligence chief, discovered that the handwriting was not Dreyfus’s at all. Rather, it belonged to a disgruntled officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy – whose hand was known to Picquart from a letter intercepted that spring. Suddenly, however, his investigation was killed in its tracks and Picquart redeployed to French Tunisia.

Always certain of his innocence, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, and brother, Mathieu, waged a tireless campaign to clear his name. In 1897, Esterhazy’s banker notified Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, vice-president of the French Senate, upon recognising his client’s handwriting on one of Mathieu’s public facsimiles of the bordereau. The politician, already aware of Esterhazy’s treachery, lodged a complaint with the minister of war and a court-martial ensued. Esterhazy was acquitted in January 1898 and fled across the English Channel, while anti-Semitic riots erupted in several French cities.

A national crisis

By now, the imbroglio was being referred to as the “Dreyfus affair”. Days after Esterhazy’s acquittal, Émile Zola published an open letter, “J’Accuse...!”, on the front page of L’Aurore (The Dawn). In it, the famed novelist denounced the army’s top brass for conspiring to scapegoat Dreyfus to protect Esterhazy. Zola also warned that the anti-Semitism fuelling the affair would “destroy the freedom-loving France of the Rights of Man” if not confronted.

Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the actual traitor
Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the actual traitor, and author of the bordereau. (Image by Getty Images)

Later that year, Hubert-Joseph Henry, a lieutenant colonel, was found to have doctored evidence to further incriminate Dreyfus. Under arrest, Henry slashed his throat with a razorblade and became an instant martyr for the anti-Dreyfusards. Édouard Drumont’s newspaper, La Libre Parole (Free Speech), launched a petition to raise funds for a monument, inviting messages from contributors. These were full of dark, anti-Semitic fantasies, with many calling for a general extermination.

Did you know?

The noun “intellectual” was wielded as a term of abuse by the anti-Dreyfusards against their adversaries. Nevertheless, Alfred Dreyfus’s defenders wore it as a badge of honour, popularising the most common meaning of the term today.

Finally, in 1899, a retrial took place in Rennes, France. It was an open secret that nationalists were plotting a coup should Dreyfus be acquitted. With the threat of civil war looming, he was reconvicted, but on a reduced sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment due to “extenuating circumstances” – unheard of for a charge of treason.

It would take another seven years before he was fully exonerated, reinstated to the army and appointed to the Legion of Honour. He fought for France in World War I and died in 1935, aged 75. In September 1995, the French Army finally admitted that Dreyfus had been the victim of a military conspiracy.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)