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On this date in 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French military was found guilty of having sold French military secrets to Germany. The verdict was based on antisemitic innuendo and paltry evidence. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent two years in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island off the South American coast. Although evidence emerged in 1896 identifying Major Ferdinand Esterhazy as the real spy, Dreyfus would be fully exonerated and reinstated in the military only in 1906. The Dreyfus Affair split French society into two camps: the government, church, army, and nationalists on one side, versus freethinkers, socialists, and defenders of justice and human rights (including writer Émile Zola) on the other. It also prompted Theodor Herzl, at the time a Viennese journalist covering the trial, to write The Jewish State: A Modern Solution to the Jewish Question (1896) and launch the Zionist movement.
“It is a crime to poison the minds of the meek and the humble, to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance, by appealing to that odious anti-Semitism that, unchecked, will destroy the freedom-loving France of the Rights of Man. It is a crime to exploit patriotism in the service of hatred, and it is, finally, a crime to ensconce the sword as the modern god, whereas all science is toiling to achieve the coming era of truth and justice. Truth and justice, so ardently longed for! How terrible it is to see them trampled, unrecognized and ignored!” —Émile Zola, “J’Accuse!” (1898)