Dec. 22, 2021

The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair

December 22, 1894. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, is convicted of treason for allegedly passing military secrets to the Germans.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

​​It’s April 1895.

A hot midday sun blazes over the southwestern Atlantic, where a ship plows through the choppy surf. In the distance, a featureless horizon is broken by the outline of a tropical island – a thicket of palm trees silhouetted against the azure sky.

This vessel - a convict ship - carries condemned criminals from France. But on this particular voyage, there’s only one prisoner on board, a man convicted of selling state secrets to an enemy power.

Below deck, the prisoner sits hunched in his dark cell. He’s in his mid-thirties, with a bristly brown mustache and an inscrutable expression. Behind wire-framed spectacles, his dark intelligent eyes are downcast but defiant.

He hears a distant splash as the anchor is thrown overboard. There’s a scraping sound, and suddenly the cell is filled with blinding light. The prisoner squints up into the sun. A guard looms over him, a sneering smile on his face.

The guard tells him that they’ve arrived at Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of Guiana in South America, a tiny rock outcrop surrounded by miles of roiling ocean. There’s a smattering of buildings on the island – a lookout tower, a wooden outhouse, and a stone hut, but not much more to shelter anyone from the South American sun beating down with a fierce intensity.

The guard marches the prisoner up a path toward a hut. He throws him inside and locks the door. The prisoner looks around the sparse room; there’s a bed, a chair, and a writing desk. There are windows, but an external wall has been constructed to prevent him from looking at the ocean.  

This type of isolation would be a brutal punishment for any guilty criminal, but it is made all the worse by the fact that the prisoner is innocent.

So this man, Alfred Dreyfus, sinks onto his hard bed in despair. But back in France, his case has sparked a fire. A small group of devoted supporters fervently believe that Dreyfus is not guilty. And ever since the day of his sentencing, December 22nd, 1894, they have been fighting to prove Dreyfus innocent — and reveal a scandal that will shake the very foundations of French society.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 22nd: The Dreyfus Affair.

Act One: Vive La France!

It’s September 1894, seven months before Alfred Dreyfus arrives at Devil’s Island.

Inside the German Embassy, in Paris, a cleaning lady hums tunelessly as she pushes her broom along an empty second-floor corridor. When she reaches the end of the hallway, she stops humming. And with a furtive glance over her shoulder, she pushes open a door and enters the office of the German military attaché, Max von Schwartzkoppen.

She hurries over to a wastebasket in the corner of the room, reaches inside, and pulls out a handful of torn paper. She stuffs the shredded pieces inside a pouch concealed beneath her dress, and then promptly exits the office.

The cleaner then leaves the Embassy and disappears into the crowd of pedestrians on the street. She wraps her coat tightly around her and lowers her head, watching her feet glance across the wet cobblestones as she walks, quickly, across town, to the headquarters of French Army’s intelligence bureau.

Moments later, she hands the torn pieces of paper to her employer, a counter-espionage officer named Major Hubert-Joseph Henry.

Following France’s defeat to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French government took every possible measure to prevent another humiliation. That’s why they are employing this cleaning lady as a spy – to go through the contents of the German Embassy’s garbage, looking for military secrets.

So far, she hasn’t found anything of interest, but today, as Major Henry pieces together the ripped shreds of paper, his eyes widen…

It’s a bordereau – a detailed account of French military tactics – addressed to Max von Schwartzkoppen. Written in scrawled, cursive handwriting, the bordereau contains top-secret information that only a French officer could know. Somebody within the French ranks has been leaking secrets to the Germans.

The inquiry to find the person responsible begins immediately.

The heads of the counter-espionage division go through a list of potential culprits. One particular name leaps out, that of a 34-year-old army captain named Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was born in Alsace, a German-speaking region of France annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War.

Being of Alsatian origin, Dreyfus is an outsider. He is also unpopular among other soldiers, who consider him haughty and taciturn. And even though Dreyfus grew up in Paris, this tangential connection to Germany through Alsace is enough to make his detractors doubt his loyalties to France. 

But in the eyes of many in the French military establishment, Dreyfus’ biggest crime is that he’s Jewish. Catholicism is the dominant religion in France at this time, influencing all civic life. And in this Catholic nation, antisemitism is rampant.

And so – as a result of prejudice and paranoia – Dreyfus is summoned before the Minister of War, General Mercier, for what he believes is a routine inspection. But it soon becomes clear to Dreyfus that he’s been summoned under false pretenses.

Another officer, a so-called handwriting expert, calmly produces a sheet of paper and a pen. He dictates a letter and asks Dreyfus to write. Dreyfus is perplexed, but years of military service have instilled in him an unquestioning respect of authority, so he dutifully obliges.

As Dreyfus writes, the handwriting expert nods at General Mercier, who whips out the bordereau and slams it on the table, his eyes burning with vindication. Mercier points at the similarities between the two handwriting styles.

But in fact, there are many glaring differences between Dreyfus’ handwriting and that of the bordereau. But it’s close enough for High Command – so they arrest Dreyfus on suspicion of conspiring with an enemy power.

Dreyfus insists there has been some mistake – he would never betray France. The insinuation alone is a terrible affront to Dreyfus, who loves his country deeply. But his protestations fall on deaf ears, and he is thrown into a cell in a military prison in Paris.  


In the months leading up to his trial, Dreyfus is demonized in the press – especially in the highly popular Catholic newspaper, Le Croix – and soon, public opinion turns against him.

But Dreyfus has one thing on his side: there’s no evidence against him. He is confident that any reasonable judge will instantly see the difference between his handwriting and the true author of the bordereau. Going into the trial, Dreyfus’ lawyer is equally confident that his client will be acquitted.

The military court convenes on December 19th, 1894, and during the opening proceedings, it becomes clear that the prosecution is grasping at straws. They can’t point at one single motive Dreyfus might have for betraying his country. And even the handwriting claims fail to stand up to scrutiny. 

Soon the judges leave to deliberate, and Dreyfus is feeling optimistic. But with acquittal now looking increasingly likely, the military high command decides to play its trump card.

They have prepared a secret dossier, containing more correspondence from the office of the German attaché, Schwartzkoppen. In one letter, Schwartzkoppen refers to somebody as ‘the scoundrel D…’

Unbeknownst to the defense, General Mercier submits the dossier to the judges, who decide that the use of Dreyfus’ initial is sufficient proof of his guilt. So on December 22, 1894, the judges unanimously convict Dreyfus of colluding with a foreign power and sentence him to permanent exile.

But that is not punishment enough. On January 5th, Dreyfus is marched to the rolling beat of a drum, past a baying crowd who spits and calls him a “traitor” and a “Jewish swine”. He stopped and a French military officer strips him of his army badges and breaks Dreyfus' sword across his knee.

But all the while, Dreyfus carries himself with unflinching dignity. He holds his arms above his head, repeatedly saying: “Innocent! Innocent! Long Live France!” But in the minds of the military, press, and the public, Dreyfus is nothing but guilty.

Then on February 21st,  the most despised man in France embarks on a voyage to Devil’s Island – a penal colony off the coast of Guiana – where he expects to live out the rest of his days in solitary confinement. But a small group of supporters will continue to fight on Dreyfus' behalf, seeking to prove an innocent.

Act Two: J’accuse!

It’s March 1896, over a year since Dreyfus was found guilty.

In Paris, Major Georges Picquart, the new chief of staff of the army intelligence bureau, examines another batch of documents stolen from the German Embassy.

As he sits in his office twirling his mustache as he studies the papers, one document catches his eye – the handwriting looks familiar. To Picquart, it looks identical to the handwriting from the ‘bordereau’ that was attributed to Dreyfus. Except this letter is signed by a French officer, named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

His heart rate racing, Major Picquart finds more letters written by this Esterhazy. And given that the letters are all addressed to the German attaché, Schwartzkoppen, the Major begins to contemplate the consequences of what he’s discovered: If Esterhazy was the one leaking secrets to the Germans, Dreyfus is innocent.

Picquart launches an inquiry into Esterhazy. But he keeps it hidden from the military High Command – aware of the already politically charged nature of the Dreyfus case.

And indeed, Dreyfus’ imprisonment is beginning to divide public opinion. Dreyfus’ brother, Mathieu, has been campaigning tirelessly for a re-trial, spreading awareness of the injustice among liberal journalists.

But most of the populace still widely regards Dreyfus as guilty. Many in the press have taken his incarceration as confirmation of their long-held suspicions that Jews represent a threat to decent, law-abiding Catholic France. According to many influential voices in the media, France’s problems can all be attributed to the decline of traditional Christian values undermined by bohemians, bankers, and intellectuals, many of whom are Jewish.

Meanwhile, Picquart discovers that Esterhazy, the French officer whom he suspects as the source of the leaks, is a former counter-espionage officer, known as a man of lax morals and with a gambling problem. To Major Picquart, it seems likely that Esterhazy would sell French secrets to pay off his debts. So Picquart presents his findings to High Command.

He does not expect the reaction he gets. The military establishment has a vested interest in keeping Dreyfus locked up. If they admit to making a mistake, they will look weak. So, rather than begin a formal investigation into Esterhazy, High Command swiftly transfers Picquart out of the country into Tunisia.

Meanwhile, Picquart’s deputy, Major Henry – the man who originally identified the bordereau – begins forging evidence against Dreyfus and slandering his former boss, Picquart. His forgeries are amateurish, but they convince High Command to drop any suspicions about Dreyfus’ innocence.


By the autumn of 1897, almost three years after Dreyfus was exiled, Picquart’s original discoveries about Esterhazy become public. Support for Dreyfus reaches a peak. Led by his brother, Mathieu, the “Dreyfusards” – as his supporters are known – include the famous novelist Emile Zola, and even the Vice President of the French Senate. 

Caving to mounting political pressure, High Command finally agrees to prosecute Esterhazy before a military court. But the trial is a sham.

On January 10th, 1898, Esterhazy is acquitted. Instead, Picquart – who has returned from Tunisia – is arrested for publicizing military intelligence. It’s a gross miscarriage of justice, and it prompts the novelist Emile Zola to write his famous open letter, J’Accuse, in which he accuses the French government of antisemitism, and conspiring to convict an innocent man.

WhenJ’Accuse is published on the front page of a popular newspaper. It immediately makes a dramatic impression, galvanizing the Dreyfusards and antagonizing their opponents.

Antisemitic riots break out across the country. Zola himself is put on trial and convicted of libel.

But the Dreyfusards’ appeals make their way up to the highest echelons of the French state, and, in August 1898, the evidence against Dreyfus is reviewed again. Major Henry, the counter-espionage officer who forged evidence, is summoned by the Minister of War and asked to explain some apparent inconsistencies in the documents. Buckling under pressure, Major Henry confesses to forging documents to incriminate Dreyfus. He is placed under arrest, before slitting his own throat while in police custody.

With Major Henry dead, and the tide of public opinion shifting, Alfred Dreyfus will finally be given a re-trial, and an opportunity to clear his name.

Act Three: Liberté!

It’s June 9th, 1899, on Devil’s Island, over four years since Dreyfus’ trial.

Dreyfus lies shackled to his bed – as he has been every night since his arrival on the island. Remarkably, Dreyfus has stayed sharp and lucid. He preserved his sanity by reading books and writing letters home to his wife, Lucie.

He's writing one of those letters when he's interrupted by a familiar sound: a key twisting in the lock to his cell. A guard enters and unfastens his manacles. Dreyfus sits up, massaging his bruised wrists. The guard tells him to gather his meager possessions. He is going back to France.

Dreyfus knows nothing of the events of the last four years – the escalating scandal, the war of public opinion, the riots and rallies, and campaigns for his release. He only knows that he is being brought back to France for a re-trial. 

Standing in court again in Rennes, France, in August 1899, Dreyfus is hopeful, but again, the trial is rigged. The military High Command is still unwilling to admit wrongdoing, and a judge finds Dreyfus guilty a second time. But as part of the verdict, the judge offers amnesty, which Dreyfus accepts.

Finally, in 1906, over ten years after his wrongful conviction, Dreyfus will be fully pardoned and all prior convictions will be reversed. He will be reinstated in the army and will serve as a colonel in WWI fighting the Germans. In 1935, at the age of 75, he will die a decorated soldier and a beloved hero of France.

The Dreyfus Affair was a reckoning for French society, an ideological battle that pitched nationalism, populism, and antisemitism against the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. In 1905, a law was passed separating Church and State, safeguarding religious freedom and preventing the Catholic Church from holding excessive power over the courts. And in these long-lasting measures, the impact of the Dreyfus Affair, which began with a guilty verdict on December 22, 1894, can still be seen in France today. In 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron said of Dreyfus that “nothing could repair the injustices he suffered… and let us not aggravate it by forgetting, deepening or repeating them.”


Next on History Daily. December 23, 1688. King James II of England abandons the throne and flees abroad after a coup forces him from power

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.