The 20th century dawned not on the first day of 1900 (or, for purists, 1901) but on a September evening in 1894, when a cleaner at the German embassy in Paris found a torn-up letter in the military attaché’s wastebasket. The cleaner was working for French intelligence, and the letter, once reassembled, was found to contain military secrets being offered by an unnamed French Army officer. After a cursory investigation, authorities arrested Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery captain working at General Staff headquarters. Thus began the Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent man was unjustly convicted, amid rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and sent off to rot on a deserted island in South America. A vigorous public campaign against the howling injustice of the affair raged for more than a decade before the captain’s final vindication, which divided France into warring camps of Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, republicans and traditionalists. Dreyfus’s ordeal was the first big test of a modern justice system, and it defined one of the central issues of democracy: should the rule of law be applied consistently, or are there cases in which it should be bent to fit a current crisis or pressing national concern? Even today, hardly a month passes without an alleged misstep of justice somewhere in the world being labelled a “new Dreyfus Affair”.
more from Donald Morrison at the FT here.