Alfred Dreyfuss was a Jewish officer in the French army who was wrongfully imprisoned for treason. The controversy that surrounded his trial and the eventual reversal of his conviction 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.
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 new evidence. By then however, word of the scandal had spread and there was public outcry for Dreyfuss' release.
Soon all of France was split between the more conservative anti-Dreyfuss citizens and liberal intellectuals who demanded justice. After the renowned author Emile Zola took an interest in the case and published a scathing letter to the French President, Dreyfuss was released in 1899 but not officially declared innocent until 1906.
Still, the event had even greater for France and the world at large: Journalist Theodor Herzl, who had covered the story from its beginning, published his seminal work Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) as a result of his observations of the case; this effectively launched the modern Zionist movement. And within France itself, the scandal resulted in new laws that further secularized society.
Dreyfuss himself was largely unaffected by the events. After he was cleared, he 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 ordeal, others in family would not be so lucky. During the Holocaust, Dreyfuss' grand-daughter was arrested by the Gestapo, and eventually died in Auschwitz.