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Explain Why the Dreyfus Affair Polarised France

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The Dreyfus Affair that begun in 1894 and continued through till 1906 ultimately resulted in the separation of church and state in France. The accusation that Alfred Dreyfus committed treason by selling military secrets to Germany caused a divide within the French community by pitting the Dreyfusards against the anti-Dreyfusards. It was essentially a campaign against the Jewish community in France and how they were disloyal to France and her people. It was eventually found that the evidence that Dreyfus was convicted on was false and was a ploy by the army to bolster its support for court-martialling Dreyfus. It was this point that caused much of the contention and caused his wife to continue her crusade to have her husband freed from life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

One of the main issues of contention is that the press was freed from censorship, which caused the press to exaggerate the initial story. It should also be noted that many of the news publication had anti Semitic feelings and were using the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish to bolster the anti Semitic agenda. Edouard Drumont used his publication La Libre Parole to pressure the army and hasten the trial of Dreyfus. It is clear that the press was using the Dreyfus trial to their advantage by circulating false information to get support and profit from the rapid selling of newspapers. As is seen today when a story is in the press that is going to trial the public are manipulated by what is in the newspapers as was the situation in 1894. The press used their power to manipulate the public into supporting the army, which did work for a time but after his wife Madame Dreyfus campaigned to have her husband retrialled the attitude of the public changed and the view of many. It was author Emile Zola that wrote a letter to the president of the republic accusing him of knowledge of Dreyfus’ innocence it was this that really turned the tide with the Dreyfusards.

The second court martial at Rennes resulted in the life imprisonment sentence lifted to 10 years of detention. Although this was an improvement on the original sentence the Dreyfusards did not feel this was good enough and continued to campaign for a complete overturn of all charges. Later that same month Dreyfus was pardoned but was not proclaimed innocent and was eventually allowed back into the army. It was not until 1995 that the French government actually proclaimed him innocent.

The Dreyfus Affair allowed the people of France to make up their own minds about the state of the military and the connection the military had with the state. It was the Dreyfus Affair that did cause the separation of church and state. Having the two combined was clearly causing problems within the populace as they were feeling that the church had total control. The people realised that the press was pushing the anti Semitic message and decided to stand against the church and demand an equal chance for all men. As Dreyfus was a Jew, it was the churches stance was that he was deliberately divulging military secrets to the enemy therefore undermining the churches and the government’s authority. Some say it was a clerical error that caused the entire problem. If this is true why did it take so long for the judicial process to free Dreyfus. Perhaps the answer is that many were anti Semitic and were looking for an excuse to alienate the Jewish community. The French had a chance with the Dreyfus Affair to show their character as a people, after the French Revolution in 1788- 1799 the French had almost become complacent and were used to having the church run almost everything. But when they could see that there was an innocent man under trial and the military was behind it not only to gather support for the army but also because they thought they could use him as a scapegoat for their anti Semitic agenda it made them think twice and once again go against the establishment. It wasn’t just the fact that the church was using Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage, it was that they were knowingly convicting a man of treason when the charges were false and there had been falsified documents to bolster their case against him. the French people could see the injustice and decided that it was time to change things once again. It was hard to do this when the majority of publications were using the non censorship rule and were spreading what ever rumours they could and forcing the hand of the army into sentencing Dreyfus as quickly as possible. As said earlier the public at first supported the claim that Dreyfus had committed treason and were jubilant that he had been sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, this should have been a cause for sorrow. The realisation came when Dreyfus’ wife campaigned to have a retrial. The Dreyfusards used the anti Semitic message to create solidarity and use that to fuel their fight to have the church separated from the state, which they were eventually successful.

In 1897 Emile Zola expressed that she felt that documents used to charge Dreyfus had been doctored, this was in fact found to be true and the culprit Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert Henry was found to have doctored the documents and he later committed suicide after it was made public that he had done so. When the public opinion began to shift in 1898 a second retrial was granted to Dreyfus but this was not good enough for the public who wanted the charges overturned, this is what started to turn the public towards unrest and obviously the French government did not want a violent repeat of the Revolution in 1788 and as a way to placate they granted Dreyfus a pardon but did not completely clear him of the charges. This was seen as an anticlerical move that would take the majority of power away from the church in order to begin the separation of church and state. It was the separation that the people wanted. But on the other hand the republic was using similar tactics as the church were using on Dreyfus. They made up fanciful stories to make the church look like it was in a worse condition that what it was. Therefore in order to get the separation of church and state the republic used the same tactics that got the church in trouble with the public in the first place. It seems a very messy affair. The republicans fought the church mainly because of their frustration at the church using their own prejudice against other religions and the lack of total victory in the case against Alfred Dreyfus. To make matters worse the Republicans believed that the Jesuits covered up the attempt by the military to doctor the documents that led to the arrest of Dreyfus and coupled with their hatred of Catholicism started the ball rolling for the doctrine of laicité, which was a central part of republican politics. It was essentially designed to end Catholic intolerance in a social forum. Therefore it is clear to me that doctrine was set in place to prevent the church from over stepping their bounds but in the same breath it did have some restrictions when it came to clerical law.

It always seems to come to an anti Semitic message when it comes to the Dreyfus Affair the imagery that was used in local papers in France portrays a very anti Semitic message. This helped the republic gather support for separation of state and church. One paper referred to Dreyfus as a modern day Judas as this a great insult in Catholicism the Jewish community could plainly see that the church was having a major go at them this angered the Republicans who were trying to fight for a more equal way at looking at other religions. But there was cartoonist on the Republican side doing the same damage to the church with damaging and derogatory. Therefore once again it seems like it was tit for tat between the two groups.

Therefore I would come to the conclusion that it was the anti Semitic attitudes of the church and military that really caused the beginnings of the unrest around the Dreyfus Affair and the continuing fight to separate the church from the state. The separation of church and state is what distinguished France from the rest of Europe. At that time most European societies still had the church ruling the state it was not separate but when France did this it gave a chance for other religions to express religious freedoms. This is what I se polarised France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Anonymous, ‘The Dreyfus Affair: A Scandal That Rocked France’, USA Today, Sep 1988, no. 117, iss. 2520, pp. 66-71

Birnbaum, Pierre,’French Jewish Sociologists between Reason and Faith: The Impact of the Dreyfus Affair’, Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 1-35

Encyclopaedia Britannica online Harris, Ruth, ‘The Assumptionists and the Dreyfus Affair, Past & Present’, No.194, February 2007, pp. 175-211

Hyman, Paula, ‘The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 88-109

Wagner, Monique, “From Gaul to De Gaulle An outline of French Civilization’, Peter Land publishing, 2010, Revised Edition pp177-178 (Background reading)

[ 1 ]. Encyclopaedia Britannica online [ 2 ]. Birnbaum, P.’French Jewish Sociologists between Reason and Faith: The Impact of the Dreyfus Affair’. Jewish Social Studies. New Series. Vol. 2. No. 1 (Autumn, 1995). P. 1
[ 3 ]. ibid. pp2-3
[ 4 ]. Birnbaum, P.’French Jewish Sociologists between Reason and Faith: The Impact of the Dreyfus Affair’. Jewish Social Studies. New Series. Vol. 2. No. 1 (Autumn, 1995). p5
[ 5 ]. ibid, pp5-6
[ 6 ]. Harris, R. ‘The Assumptionists and the Dreyfus Affair, Past & Present’. No.194. February 2007.p178
[ 7 ]. ibid, pp179-180
[ 8 ]. Harris, R. ‘The Assumptionists and the Dreyfus Affair, Past & Present’. No.194. February 2007.p179
[ 9 ]. ibid. p178
[ 10 ]. Hyman, P. ‘The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical’. The Journal of Modern History.Vol. 61. No. 1 (Mar., 1989). pp. 88-109
[ 11 ]. ibid. p97
[ 12 ]. ibid. p100…...

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