Herzl and the Dreyfus Affair: French poetic justice

In 1894, Dreyfus, a young Jewish Captain in the French army, was wrongfully found guilty of passing on French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. After a humiliating trial – publicised over all of Europe – he was condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island, Île du Diable, which was one of the French penal colonies off the coast of French Guiana.  Devil’s Island was the smallest (35 acres) of the three Îles du Salut (Islands of Salvation) of the penal colony.

Herzl, a journalist and a Jew, took a great interest in the Dreyfus trial.  On his return from Paris to Vienna in June 1895, he began to take a great interest in Die Judensache the “Jewish cause”. I have created the impression that there is a cause-effect connection between the Dreyfus case (the cause) and Herzl’s decision to take up the “Jewish cause” (the effect) soon after his return to Vienna from the Dreyfus trial in Paris. The common belief is that the connection between these two events is logical (cause-effect) and not merely chronological. In other words, it is commonly believed that if there were no Dreyfus trial, Herzl might not have gone on to make any significant impact on Jewish history. Lotta Levensohn’s summation is a typical example:

“In the ordinary course of his duties as a correspondent he witnessed the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French General Staff, who had been sentenced on a cooked up charge of high treason and exiled to a living death on Devil’s Island solely because he was a Jew. That such a thing could happen in republican France, whichhad been the first country to confer civic rights on the Jews, was frightful enough in itself; but that the trial could have made all France – from the highest circles to the lowest – seethe with anti-Semitism, made him take stock of the whole Jewish position. The Jewish problem was still unsolved a hundred years after emanicipation. All Herzl’s manhood was up in arms. A solution must be found; he must find it; he had it: a Jewish State, the Jews a nation among the nations, with a country of their own” (pp. 28-29).[1]

This belief, however, cannot be verified, for nowhere in the many pages of his diaries does Herzl hint that the Dreyfus affair was the thorn in the flesh that spurred him on to fight for the Jewish cause, and to later become, what he believed, the founder of the Jewish state. it may be true, as Lotta Levensohn stated that “all herzl’s manhood was up in arms.” The question is: was it is his Jewish-hood as well that was up in arms?  Shlomo Avineri cautions:

“Contrary to the conventionally accepted notion that it was the Dreyfus Affair which brought him to the idea that only a political solution could solve the ‘Jewish problem,’ there is no indication of this in the diaries. True, as the Neue Freie Presse Paris correspondent, Herzl followed closely the first stages of the Affair (he had already left Paris when the later, and politically much more significant, phases of the Affair unfolded, including Emile Zola’s involvement). He witnessed the first trial and verdict, followed by the public degradation of Dreyfus. But in many of Herzl’s despatches from Paris, Dreyfus’s Jewish background is hardly mentioned; what comes through very strongly is Herzl’s scathing critique of the failure of the French judicial system, the evident miscarriage of justice, his disgust with the intrigues in which the political, military, and ecclesiastical elites were enmeshed, his alarm at the chauvinistic, anti-German nationalistic hysteria that engulfed most of the republican parties in France, and the corruption of parliamentary and journalistic life in Paris.”

Herzl believed that the Jews could only find salvation in a separate homeland. At first, Herzl was not sure about the location of this homeland. The Holy Land was of no particular interest to him. For Herzl, the term “holy” had no religious significance. What was important was a separate, independent Land, Jewish land; an Island of Salvation, far way from Devil’s Island, which for Herzl, and for many Jews of the time, symbolized hatred of the Jew.

Dreyfus was convicted in 1894. Herzl began to write his “The Jewish State”, which was published two years later (1896), in the same year that the real culprit was identified: Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a Major in the French army. The evidence was ignored, and so was Dreyfus. I mentioned earlier that in his diaries, Herzl does not say whether the Dreyfus was the motivation or part of the motivation for embarking on his “The Jewish State”. It, however, seems very plausible that Dreyfus did have a significant influence on Herzl’s subsequent writing. Strange that Herzl’s diary is mum on Dreyfus.

Eventually, in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated. The French justice system of the time worked like this. A non-Jewish French Major commits treason. He remains at large. They plant false evidence on a Jewish French Captain. He’s found guilty and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island. Two years later, new evidence – real evidence this time – proves that the non-Jewish Major is the real culprit. They ignore the evidence. The Jewish Captain remains on the Île du Diable.  After 10 years of international pressure, they release him. The non-Jewish French Major remains off the hook. They promote the Jewish French Captain to Major. There is no record of Major Dreyfus meeting Major Esterhazy Walsin down the street. If Dreyfus had, he would’ve had one small satisfaction. He wouldn’t need to salute a superior officer. A just reward – and poetic justice; French poetic justice.


[1] Levensohn, Lotta. 1941. Outline of Zionist history. Scopus publishing company.