France opens museum dedicated to Dreyfus Affair
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has opened this week a museum dedicated to one of history’s most emblematic cases of antisemitism: “The Dreyfus affair”.
The story gained notoriety in France and then worlwide thanks to the novel J’accuse (I accuse) written by Emile Zola in 1894.
French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and spent years at the infamous penitentiary on the Devil’s Island.
Macron opened the museum in what used to be Zola’s house in Médan, west Paris, which the writer had purchased in 1878, thanks to the proceeds from his novel the L’Assommoir.
Known as the Maison Zola, it now features more than 500 documents, including objects, photographs, songs, posters, and other items designed to give a full picture of what happened back in the late 19th century.
In 1894 Dreyfus was convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s island in French Guiana.
Zola wrote an open letter to President Félix Faure in defense of the Jewish officer, which was published on the front page of the L’Aurore newspaper on 13 January,1898 and sold thousands of copies.
The letter, which began with the words “J’accuse,” blamed the army for covering up its mistaken conviction of Dreyfus. Zola himself was brought to trial in 1898, and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 francs after being found guilty of libel.
As a result of the controversy, Dreyfus was court-martialed once again. Although still found guilty, he was pardoned by the new president Emile Loubet in 1899.
Dreyfus was eventually reinstated into the Army with full honors in 1906, but by then France was split into the anti-Dreyfusards — right-wing nationalists on the one hand and left-wing anti-militarists known as the Dreyfusards on the other.
The Maison Zola-Musée Dreyfus museum has taken ten years to complete and has been supported by several donors, particularly the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and the government’s DILCRAH (Delegation against racism, anti-Semitism and LGBT discrimination).
The story of the Dreyfus affair was adapted into a film called An Officer and a Spy (‘J’accuse’) starring Louis Garrel, directed by Roman Polanski in 2019. It won the César award for Best Director and screenplay.