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From the French Revolution to the Dreyfus Affair

From the French Revolution to the Dreyfus Affair
It appears then that the Jews of France were well integrated in the century that followed the French Revolution. This teaches us about the positive outcomes of the emancipation. It is therefore perplexing that it is in this country that the Dreyfus Affair took place in 1894, one of the most infamous episodes in the history of antisemitism in the Modern Era. Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish captain in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. The accusation and Dreyfus’ subsequent trial were accompanied by a wave of antisemitism that swept through the country. Dreyfus was, like many other French Jews of his time, a proud Frenchman who saw France as his home.
The fact that he was a captain in the army shows us how well integrated French Jews were in France. Dreyfus was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, France’s enemy and was sentenced to life imprisonment in exile. Gradually it became apparent that some with high military ranks were covering up for the real culprit. When the evidence started to unfold and to make its way to the newspapers, public opinion in France split into two opposing camps. Fierce antisemitic speech swept France and surprised many who thought the successful integration of Jews into French society had put an end to this old hatred. At the same time, many argued for Dreyfus’ innocence.
A well-known example was the French novelist, playwright, and journalist Emile Zola, who wrote the famous article “J’accuse,” blaming French society for being antisemitic. The uproar in France eventually led to a retrial, a pardon, and a final exoneration. In 1906 Dreyfus was set free and returned to the army. He later fought in the Great War. The Dreyfus Affair is still considered as one of the cornerstones of modern post-emancipatory antisemitism. It demonstrated to many that Jews were not safe even as emancipated equal citizens. Let’s now return to the question of how such a major event in the history of antisemitism took place in a country created on the French Revolution’s ideals of civil equality for all.
We have to understand the rupture of the French Revolution - something exceptional in a way that the French society is now being regenerated. The regeneration of the French nation is now shared by the Jews. The Jews are regenerated as members of a collective body. And, in a way, they are supposed to forget what they were before as any other Frenchman. Someone living in the Provence, someone wherever he was living, speaking his own idioms - every Frenchman has to forget his past, everyone. So Jews also had to forget their past. If they forget their past, they can enter within the new society. They are becoming ‘new man,’ - ‘l’homme nouveau,’ - ‘regenerated man.’
They are supposed to be cut from their past. In a way they never were. They never accepted to be completely separated from their past and this has been seen immediately by the counter-revolutionary people. You see the French Revolution is the burst of the Revolution and the burst of the Revolution has a very deep consequence. It led to the birth of the counter-revolution in the Modern Period. And the counter-revolution was so strong, as strong as the Revolution, and the fact that the Revolution emancipated Jews led the counter-revolution to see the Jews as the main target. “How can we explain that the French Revolution destroyed Catholicism?” It can be explained only by the Jews.
It was the Jews who handled, who organized the French Revolution. In their mind, up to them, the Jews were supposed to destroy the Catholic code through the French Revolution. So from the French Revolution to the end of the 19th century, to the Dreyfus Affair, we witness a very strong counter-revolution, maybe the strongest in the Modern Period, the strongest … much stronger than what will happen in Germany later on. We witness the birth of thinkers who are really aiming to relate modernity, Enlightenment, to Jewishness and to destroy Enlightenment implies to destroy Jewishness. So from the French Revolution, this counter-revolution intellectual movement led to many antisemitic crises. Obviously, the strongest one happened during the Dreyfus Affair. But you see the relation?
There is no, not even one country in the world in which the Dreyfus Affair could happen. Only in France you could have a Dreyfus Affair because only in France you had many Jewish soldiers within the General Staff of the army. You had many Jews as prefects, generals and so on. During the Dreyfus Affair you had many Jewish generals leading the French army everywhere. This didn’t happen in Germany, neither in England, nor in the United States, nor in Russia, only in France because French universalism led to a strong state in which Jews could enter as Jews, as citizens while remaining Jews. So the Dreyfus Affair is related to the kind of Enlightenment which happened in France, the French Revolution.
And then it is obviously the worst moment of antisemitism in France because it is the most symbolic moment in which a Jew was able to almost control, direct the French army, was really at the highest level of the French army - the General Staff. So if any betrayal was happening, the counter-revolutionary would say, it is because there is a Jew there. The Jew, in fact, is still remaining a Jew whatever… He went to the Grandes Écoles. He went to the meritocratic system. He went up to the highest level of the French army training as a French soldier, very courageous soldier, and so on…, fighting for the army. But, in fact, for the counter-revolutionary thinkers he was still a Jew.
So when Dreyfus was arrested at the end of 1894 and later on, mainly in 1898 - I wrote a book on this, The Anti-semitic Moment - suddenly hundreds of thousands of people, all around the cities, even in the smallest hamlets of the countryside, will jump on their foot and say, “Death to the Jews! “Against Dreyfus!” “Death to the Jews!” “Death to the Jews,” “la France aux français,” “France to the French,”meaning “outside the Jews” and France has to be… Only real Frenchmen, having their deep roots within the French past, should belong to France - “la France aux Français.”

Prof. Pierre Birnbaum

The end of the 19th century was marked by one of the most infamous episodes in the history of antisemitism in the Modern Era – the Dreyfus Affair.

How could the Dreyfuss Affair take place in a country created on the French Revolution’s ideals of civil equality for all?


  • Birnbaum, Pierre, The Anti-Semitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898, trans. by Jane Marie Todd (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).

  • Cohen, Richard I., “Recurrent Images in French Antisemitism in the Third Republic,” in Robert Wistrich, ed., Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Amsterdam: Published for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), pp. 183 – 195.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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