So What Good Am I | Teen Ink

So What Good Am I

May 23, 2009
By nightbabe SILVER, Wayne, New Jersey
nightbabe SILVER, Wayne, New Jersey
9 articles 0 photos 1 comment

“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Words like this are heard all around the world. These words, heard all over, signal to the world that news is nearby. However, the ability to have surplus newspapers and the mindset that everyone should read a newspaper only began to occur at about the time of the Dreyfus Affair in France when Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of being a German spy. At that time, in France, a new kind of journalism was on the rise. High-speed presses were allowing papers to be produced in great numbers and recently invented graphic processors helped create competition between newspapers. A newspaper is a business just like any other. Therefore, a “Press War” developed between French newspapers to try and gain the most money and readership, no matter the cost. While the government was creating evidence against Dreyfus, the newspapers were making matters worse by feeding false evidence to the government and the public. The Dreyfus Affair was a big scandal on its own, but the newspapers made matters worse by making sure to keep it big news. The news quickly spread, and gossip spurred. Eventually, all across France people had mixed feelings on the affair. It was big news, and the newspapers stirred their interested. It began to become a fight for everything. Until then, Anti-Semitism had been somewhat suppressed and a small part of many people’s lives. When the Dreyfus Affair began, it rose to the surface. French citizens were against each other for the sides they chose. The French were fighting against the Jews. No one was questioning the government or the truth of the paper. The public used the same papers that started this pandemonium to attack other newspapers and other French citizens with opposing sides of the affair. While occupied by the “Press War”, through the advances in Journalism, the press created a war within the public that made the French choose between being dreyfusards, those supporting Alfred Dreyfus, and being anti-dreyfusards and more importantly the choice of being anti-Semitic.

In order to explore the effects the media had on the Dreyfus Affair, it is important to examine the Dreyfus Affair itself. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a young Jewish artillery officer. He was willing to sacrifice his life for his country. He was part of the French nationalist movement. In November of 1894, Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for sharing French military secrets with Germany. However, he was only guilty of being a Jew. Dreyfus only found out what he was charged with through newspapers. Since the newspapers were not completely accurate, he could only guess. The trial was short and pointless. Evidence was falsified just to make him guilty. He was sent to Devil’s Island to serve a life sentence. In 1896, evidence appeared that proved Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence and that a French army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was the true culprit. Because Captain Dreyfus was Jewish, this new evidence proving his innocence did not matter. As with every scandal, the truth slowly leaked out. Émile Zola printed the proof in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898 and titled it J’Accuse. Zola accused the government of falsely finding Dreyfus guilty and creating evidence to prove Alfred Dreyfus’ guilt. After Émile Zola printed his article, the Dreyfus case had to be reopened and he was exonerated. In 1906, Émile Zola was reinstated as a major in the French army. He later served during World War I and ended his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

To the newspapers, it did not necessarily matter whether Alfred Dreyfus was guilty of being a German spy or not. It was business. The press and the public were excluded from the trial in order to keep this government scandal a secret. The newspapers still had deadlines and wanted to be the first with information of Dreyfus’s trial. The newspapers filled in the blanks with whatever would be most appealing to the public. La Libre Parole (Free Speech) was a known anti-semitic paper in France. When Dreyfus was arrested, it was an opportunity for La Libre Parole to make money and get the public to read this paper and become engulfed in the desire to learn more about the affair. “The newspaper’s editor, Edouard Drumont, stated that his information about Dreyfus had come from an anonymous source within the army. Drumont wrote that Dreyfus had made ‘a full confession’ and that there was ‘absolute proof that he sold our military secrets to Germany.’” The public believed what was in the papers. Papers like La Libre Parole fed the growing anti-Semitism. It was important for each paper to prove to the others that each could be on top of The Affair and the first with information. Papers did not care whether the public understood what was happening. Graphic processors made the newspapers more appealing. While a more appealing paper brings in more money, it allows the public to gain access to news that gives them a fight to spice up their lives. The hope that the newspapers provided gave people the hope they needed and a reason to fight for their country and what they feel is right for the community.
While competing against each other, the press fed the nationalist movement, causing more tension between French Jews and French non-Jews. At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, nationalism was spreading all across Europe. Every group of people wanted to live within its own nation with only their ethnic background. The idea, like most races in the past, is that a problem with one Jew was a problem with all of them. Alfred Dreyfus was devoting his life to France by fighting in the army, while a true Frenchmen was betraying his own people. Aside from Esterhazy, the government was a traitor. One of the most dauntless nationalists held a mentality that Dreyfus was convicted simply because he was arrested. “If it is proved that the Minister of War has cast opprobrium on the army without irrefutable proofs; in a word, if Captain Dreyfus is acquitted, it is General Mercier who becomes the traitor.” The day before his first trial began in court, Dreyfus wrote a letter to his wife explaining there was no reason for them to worry because Dreyfus devoted his life to France. “Devoted to my country, to which I have dedicated all my energy, all my ability, I have nothing to fear.” Rather than reporting the news, the newspapers began telling people what they wanted to hear. The one thing people did not predict was a unanimous vote. No one could believe seven officers would convict a fellow comrade, whether he was a Jew or not. The newspapers exasperated the Affair to the extent that French people were fighting each other based on their different views of the Jews in France. “In France, the Frenchman must march in the first rank, the foreigner in the second.” Jews were the foreigners. Many people felt the Jews were trespassing. The Dreyfus Affair was an excuse to rid France of those trespassers. The newspapers made Esterhazy seem like the true patriotic war hero Dreyfus really was. Thanks to the newspapers, “Esterhazy, now a Parisian celebrity, drew a large and curious crowd.” The newspapers depicted him as a patriotic Frenchman. In the article, J’Accuse, Zola made France seem dishonorable. He embarrassed the French Government. The people could not be for a nation that would allow the person guilty of helping Germany be free. More than the Jews, France hated Germany. They needed to be a strong nation. The citizens of France needed people to trust in France for the sake of standing against Germany. Because the fear of Germany was much greater than the hatred France had for Jews, J’Accuse made an impact on the public. A majority began to want Esterhazy to be convicted, but some people felt that because Dreyfus was Jewish, Dreyfus he should still remain in confinement. The public was split between believing that this wonderful France would create evidence and find an innocent man guilty. Others acknowledged Dreyfus was innocent, but felt he must have been involved somehow since he was Jewish. The newspapers continued to sensationalize information on The Affair, and people would buy the newspapers and gossip about whether or not Dreyfus was guilty.
After the newspapers were able to print the truth, or at least some of it, people began to feel sympathetic to Dreyfus, while still being Anti-semitic toward him since he was a Jew. After Émile Zola printed J’Accuse, people were more interested in finding Esterhazy guilty for the sake of saving France. The Jews were viewed as a problem that was just shy of being as great as keeping France strong against Germany.
“…But what a blot on your name…this abominable Dreyfus Affair is! A court martial, acting on orders has just dared to acquit such a man as Esterhazy. Truth itself and justice itself have been slapped in the face. And now it is too late, France’s cheek has been sullied by that supreme insult, and History will record that it was during your Presidency that such a crime against society was committed…They have dared to do this. Very well, then, I shall dare too…If I were, my nights would be haunted by the spectre of that innocent man so faw away, suffering the worst kind of torture as he pays for a crime he did not commit.”
France, still split in two, began to believe Dreyfus was innocent. Jews were beaten and shunned. The newspapers were selling stories on crimes, generally made up, about Jews. The public wanted a reason to keep Dreyfus in prison, only because he was a Jew. The papers fiercely attacked the Jews as a whole. Political cartoons would leave stereotypical images in people’s minds. A part of France wanted to believe the Jews were French nationalists as well. Dreyfus fought in the army for France. This was hard for other people to grasp. Why would a Jew being fighting for France? One side of this split within the public believed Dreyfus had to be guilty for this reason. No one knew the truth. Every person had a newspaper they chose to believe and all others were false. Drumont wrote a book that outlined conspiracy theories confirmed by two other crimes involving Jews “…gave Le Libre Parole’s ‘investigative journalists’ to break a new Anti-Jewish story everyday.” People would buy Le Libre Parole and fall for every word of it. France developed tensions between people that felt Jews should stay in France. Tensions also grew between people that felt Dreyfus was truly innocent and that the government was wrong and the people that felt Dreyfus was guilty no matter what anyone else said. This split in France over one trial brought about an issue for Jews that seemed to have not existed only months before. Before the Dreyfus Affair, France had been a safe place for Jews. Dreyfus was so patriotic (until he was arrested) for that reason. The Dreyfus Affair “became much more than a trial; the extent of the hatred for Jews it unleashed shocked both Jews and non-Jews, especially because it occurred in a country where Jews had widely been considered better off than in any other.” At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, France had become one of the worst places for Jews. Theodore Hertzal was an English reporter that had gone to France to witness Dreyfus’s trial and began his quest for a Jewish homeland, Zionism, shortly after. While having a Jewish homeland would be great for Jews, some still felt they had ties to France and should be able to support it. They had lived through the French Revolution, Napoleon and so much more. Their history was shared with France’s. A lot of people still felt that France was not a place for Jews. The newspapers were just as split. There were anti-Semitic papers sending out false stories. They did not all have to do with the Dreyfus Affair anymore.
In conclusion, with the help of the press, the Dreyfus Affair was a major turning point for France. It brought about pre-existing anti-Semitism that French citizens had not even known existed. When the Dreyfus Affair came about, Jews were suddenly a threat to the France that French citizens had been trying to establish for years. Newspapers fed the pandemonium the Dreyfus Affair had created in France. While the newspaper business grew, people fell under their spell and believed every word to be true to the extent that France was split in two. It may have started as a simple business, but the development of the press in France led to a rise in anti-Semitism in a country that had once been one of the safest nations for Jews.

Beller, Steven. Anti Semitism: A Very Short Introduction . New York: Oxford Univerity Press Inc., 2007.

Bredin, Jean-Denis. The Affair: THe Case of Alfred Dreyfus. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1986.

Burns, Michael. France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History. Boston: n.p., 1999.

“The Dreyfus Affair and the Press.” Constitutional Rights Foundation. (accessed April 6, 2009).

Friedenberg, Albert M. “The Jewish Quarterly Review.” JStor (April 1938): 375-377. (accessed February 18, 2009).

Gale Virtual Reference Library.

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