On this day in 1894, French army captain Alfred Dreyfus – a Jewish Alsatian – was wrongfully convicted of treason by the government of the French Third Republic. His prosecutor argued that Dreyfus had smuggled military secrets to the German Empire. Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island in Guyana to serve a life sentence; as he left for prison, many in France suspected he had been framed. Emile Zola, a prominent French writer, penned an open letter entitled “J’Accuse!” in which he accused the French government of antisemitism and shameful treatment of Dreyfus.
In 1899, Dreyfus was brought back to France to stand trial again. French society was divided on the issue; “Dreyfusards” such as Georges Clemenceau (correctly) believed Dreyfus innocent, whilst “Anti-Dreyfusards” condemned the imprisoned captain – notably the writers of La Libre Parole, a viciously bigoted newspaper run by Édouard Drumont. After the trial, Dreyfus was pardoned – he had been wrongfully accused to cover up the wrongdoings of another officer – and his rank was finally reinstated in 1906. The “Affair” polarized French society and resulted in nationalist division and justification for the growth of anti-semitic movements in Europe in the ensuing decades.