The Dreyfus Affair was a military and legal cause celebre which polarized public opinion in France between 1894 and 1906, resulting in violent public discussion, intensifying bitter divisions within society, and uncovering strong anti-Semitic sentiment.
Alfred Dreyfus, a brilliant officer, became the scapegoat when it was discovered that a French officer was passing information to the German military attaché in Paris. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, unpopular, and an outsider, was convicted on forged evidence communicated to the judges behind the back of Dreyfus’s lawyer. In 1895 Dreyfus was stripped of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and sentenced to life imprisonment on the infamous penal colony, Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America. The Right wing press intensified its attacks on Jews, portraying the incident as evidence of ‘Jewish treachery’.
The matter was reopened the following year by an intelligence officer called Georges Picquart, who discovered that the leakages were continuing and traced them to an infantry officer called Walsin Esterhazy. In an attempt to hush the matter up the army transferred Picquart to Tunisia, but the matter was eventually brought before parliament and Esterhazy was formally denounced. But the army was more concerned with protecting its image than rectifying its error. Once more the military establishment succeeded in clouding the issue and Esterhazy was acquitted. However, the army’s triumph was short-lived. Emile Zola published an open letter (J’Accuse!) which accused the military authorities of persecuting Dreyfus, forcing them to sue him for libel and thereby bringing the matter before the civil courts (1898). Zola lost the case and was forced to flee to England to avoid imprisonment, where he remained until he was granted an amnesty.
By now the truth had begun to emerge and Hubert Henry, the man responsible for the forgeries, committed suicide after being interrogated. Amid mounting conflict between the Right (who wished to defend the army at all costs) and the Left (who felt that justice must prevail), the case was taken to the court of appeal, which ordered a new court-martial. This sat at Rennes in 1899 and the army, by playing on its special position in society, again secured Dreyfus’s conviction, condemning him to ten years detention, but with a verdict of ‘extenuating circumstances’.
In September 1899 President Loubert pardoned Dreyfus, thereby making it possible for him to return to Paris, but he had to wait until 1906 – twelve years after the case had begun – before the case was reopened and the decisions of both court-martials quashed, after which Dreyfus was restored to his former military rank. After a short period he resigned and went onto the reserve, being later recalled to command an ammunition column during the First World War. He died in 1935. During his lster years he liked to play bridge. One evening his partner commented on the news that someone had recently been arrested for espionage. Realizing the tactlessness of his remark, he quickly added that he did not suppose there was anything in it. Dreyfus, calmly dealing, replied 'Oh, I don't know - after all, there's never smoke without fire."
The affair, which at one point looked likely to bring about the collapse of the young French republic, eventually strengthened it. Moderate Republicans, Radicals, and socialists worked together against their common enemy, the army and the Catholic hierarchy, and in 1905, the government, emphasising the role of the Catholic leadership in the affair, succeeded in passing legislation securing the formal separation of Church and state.
The photographer of this portrait is the Gerschel studio of 23, boulevard des Capucines, Paris. The Gerschel brothers began their careers as daguerreotypists in Strasbourg in 1856. In 1860 Aaron Gerschel was condemned to a month in prison for photographing an execution. Sammuel remained in Strasbourg, while Edouard moved to Nancy. From around 1885 Aaron was established in Paris at 17, boulevard St. Martin, where he was ‘photographer to the Ecole Polytechnique’. Around 1900 he moved to 23, boulevard des Capucines.
condition: Apart from a very slight loss of crispness to a part of the top edge of the mount, this cabinet card is in near mint condition.
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