January 5, 1895: Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer who, in October of 1894, was arrested for treason, accused of passing military secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was a native of Alsace and more importantly, of Jewish background, a factor that probably contributed (or led) to his arrest and conviction based on flimsy evidence. The army stripped Dreyfus of his rank upon his conviction, and he was shipped to Devil’s Island, a penal colony/labor camp located off the coast of French Guiana; this was where Dreyfus would have spent the rest of his life had his guilty verdict remained intact, which seemed likely, as few people aside from his own family members were willing to stand up for him.
Dreyfus spent 1,517 days on the island and wrote several letters to the French president pleading that he search for the “true guilty party, the author of this abominable crime”, unaware that a political scandal bearing his name was brewing thousands of miles away in France. Evidence that the French army had wrongfully punished Dreyfus and then attempted to cover up its mistake set off the “Dreyfus affair”. In early 1898 Émile Zola’s famous open letter to the president, “J’accuse”, ran in a newspaper run by future Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (another Dreyfus supporter):
The evidence of Dreyfus’s character, his affluence, the lack of motive and his continued affirmation of innocence combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the “dirty Jew” obsession that is the scourge of our time… (the full article)
The Dreyfus affair divided the nation into two main camps. On one side lay the anti-Dreyfus camp, composed mainly of anti-semites, nationalists, certain religious leaders, and on the other, the pro-Dreyfus faction (called “Dreyfusards”), which included men like Zola (and other intellectuals and artists), republicans, socialists, and advocates of religious freedom. The latter group eventually triumphed. In 1899 Dreyfus was tried again and sentenced to ten years imprisonment this time, but in 1906 he was officially exonerated and reinstated to the army with a promotion to major. The Dreyfus affair and the anti-semitism exposed (and refuted) by it was one of the events that inspired the formation of the modern Zionist movement.
LITTLE KNOWN FACT: This actually divided the French art community. Monet, Pissaro, Cassatt, etc were on the side of Dreyfus.
Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, and some others? TOTALLY ANTI-SEMITIC ASSHOLES. Renoir, who painted sappy, wishy-washy paintings of pretty girls said some pretty horrible things about Jews, and Degas, with his fucking ballerinas actually ended his friendship with Pissaro after the affair because he was a Jew.
Monet’s always been my favorite artist, so I’m glad at least that he was on the right side of this bullshit.
Rather out of the usual time-frame for this blog, but such an essential component of 19th century French history that it had to be reblogged.
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