Alfred Dreyfuss was a Jewish officer in the French army who was wrongfully imprisoned after being convicted of spying. The controversy that surrounded his trial and eventual reversal became a symbolic battle between the political factions of French society, and also an inspiration for twentieth century Zionism.
Born in 1859, Dreyfuss began his military training at a fairly early age and moved steadily up the ranks. By the age of thirty he had been promoted to Captain and was continuing his military studies at the French war college. Though he faced a degree of anti-Semitism there, he managed to progress.
However, in 1894, Dreyfuss was arrested and convicted of treason in a secret court martial, and sentenced to life imprisonment. When an independent investigation later established his innocence, the French authorities staged a cover-up and exiled the officer who had presented the evidence that cleared Dreyfuss. By then, however, word of the incident had spread and there was a public outcry for Dreyfuss' release. Soon all of France was split between the more conservative anti-Dreyfuss citizens, and liberal intellectuals who demanded justice. Finally, the renowned author Emile Zola took an interest in the case, and published a scathing letter to the President which called for Dreyfuss' release. Dreyfuss was released in 1899, but not officially declared innocent until 1906.
But the event had even greater metaphorical impact. Writer and journalist Theodor Herzl had been assigned to cover the story and in 1896, published his seminal work Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), which effectively started the modern Zionist movement. And within France, the scandal resulted in new laws that further secularized French society.
Dreyfuss himself was largely unaffected by the events. After he was cleared, Dreyfuss resumed military duty and even served later on during WWI. He eventually earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before dying in 1935 at the age of 75. Sadly, although he survived his anti-Semitic ordeal, others in family were not as lucky. Years later, his grand-daughter was arrested by the Gestapo, and eventually died in Auschwitz.