The Dreyfus Affair showcased and intensified the divisions within French politics and society. Given the fact that it followed immediately after some other noted French scandals, such as the bribery of government officials and journalists that were associated with the financing of the Suez Canal
helped give rise to speculation that the young French Republic was in danger of collapse. The Dreyfus Affair wound up touching just about every aspect of French society and the cast of characters involved prominent institutions, monarchists, republicans, political parties, the Catholic Church
, the army and anti-Semitic sentiments. It eventually helped lead to the separation of church and state in France.
Alfred Dreyfus was an obscure captain in the French army. He came from a Jewish family that moved to Paris when Germany annexed his native province of Alsace in 1871. In 1894, papers discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attache made it appear that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus, probably because he was a Jew and had access to the type of information that was discovered, came under suspicion. The army authorities declared that Dreyfus' handwriting was similar to that on the papers. Dreyfus claimed his innocence but despite his protests was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial at which he was not even allowed to examine the "evidence" against him. The army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped him off to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. The political right in France at the time, cited Dreyfus' alleged espionage as further evidence of the failures of the Republic and used the case to strengthen and increase its support. Right wing newspapers responded by intensifying its attacks on Jews and used the incident as further evidence of "Jewish treachery".
Dreyfus seemed destined to die in disgrace. He had very few defenders and anti Semitism was rampant in the French army. An unlikely defender came to Dreyfus' cause. A Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, who was appointed chief of army intelligence two years after Dreyfus was convicted, determined that he had been "railroaded" and that the actual culprit was still in position to do further damage. After investigating the matter in detail, Picquart determined that one Major Walsin Esterhazy was indeed the guilty party. After repeated attempts to get the army to re-open the case, Picquart was transferred to Tunisia. The army it seems, was more concerned about preserving its image than fixing its mistake. Meanwhile, a military court acquitted Esterhazy - ignoring convincing evidence suggesting his guilt.
The Dreyfus Affair might have ended then and there but enter the novelist Emile Zola. He published his denunciation J'accuse! of the cover-up in a daily newspaper. Eventually Zola was found guilty of libeling the army and was sentenced to imprisonment. He headed for England where he remained until he was granted amnesty. The immediate result of his publication was to raise public passion. All the while, the political right and the Catholic Church - both hostile to the Republic -steadfastly maintained that the Dreyfus case was a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons, designed to damage the army's prestige and destroy France.
Sometime later during the investigation, another military officer discovered that additional documents had been added to the Dreyfus file. It was determined that a lieutenant colonel by the name of Hubert Henry had forged the documents. This seemed to strengthen the case against Dreyfus in case he was granted a new trial. Hubert Henry was interrogated and immediately after his interrogation committed suicide. In 1899 the army did conduct a new court martial and again found Dreyfus guilty. It did however observe that there were "extenuating circumstances" and packed him back off to Devil's Island.
Later in 1899, the president of France wound up pardoning Dreyfus, making it possible for him to return to Paris. Dreyfus then had to wait until 1906, a full twelve years from the beginning of the case, to be exonerated of all charges. He was restored to his former military rank.
The Dreyfus Affair inspired moderate republicans, Radicals and socialists to work together. The ultimate exoneration of Dreyfus had strengthened the Republic, in no small part due to the conduct of its enemies, most notable of which were the army itself and the Catholic church. In 1905, the Radical Party emphasized the role of Catholic leadership during the Dreyfus Affair and was successful in passing legislation separating church and state.