This Week in JPL History: The Dreyfus Collection

This postcard is one from from the JPL’s Dreyfus Collection

One of the many interesting collections that the JPL-A holds is the Dreyfus Postcard Collection. The collection consists of a number of postcards illustrated with images related to the Dreyfus Affair, a divisive political scandal that rocked France for over a decade. from 1894-1906. The affair led to the downfall of three French governments and gained press worldwide. The Queen of England even pulled strings to have her legal counsel present at the trials.

It began with the wrongful conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason in November 1894. Dreyfus was then sent to a penal colony in French Guiana for five years on the basis of forged documents created by the French Army. In 1896 evidence was revealed which pointed the finger at a French army major, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as being the one who sent French military secrets to the Germans and not Dreyfus. Esterhazy was protected by the army in order to keep Dreyfus in jail and they punished Major George Picquart after he attempted to reveal Dreyfus’ innocence. This evidence was suppressed by the French military who response included laying additional charges at the feet of Dreyfus.

In January 1898, Émile Zola penned an open letter entitled ‘J’accuse…’ which spread the word of what had happened; in 1899 a new trial resulted in another conviction and a new sentence of 10 years; however Dreyfus was freed through a pardon. The guilty conviction followed by a pardon was seen as being suspect. The thought was that the French government should either pronounce him has guilty and imprison him or he should have been pronounced innocent.

Throughout the scandal France was deeply divided between those who believed in Dreyfus’ innocence and those who did not. While historians are unsure whether the initial charges were prompted by feelings of anti-semitism, there is no doubt that some of the later divisiveness was explicitly discriminatory. The chants of “Death to the Jews” which occurred during a violent protest during the height of the Affair in Paris is an example of this. In 1906 Dreyfus was officially cleared of all charges and was reinstated as a major. The French Army refused to admit their culpability in the scandal and even in 1994 a colonel got in hot water for saying that historians agree Dreyfus was innocent. In 1995 however, the army did finally admit their wrongdoing.

The This Week in Jewish Public Library History blog series was made possible through the generous support of the Peter and Ellen Jacobs Virtual Archives Fund

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