A Mockery of Justice: Caricature and the Dreyfus Affair


“Le Traître,” (The Traitor)

“Le Traître,” (The Traitor)

These, Sir, are the facts of how this miscarriage of justice came about…all these facts combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination…the ‘dirty Jew’ obsession that is the scourge of our time.
  --Émile Zola, “J’Accuse!” L’Aurore (1898)

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was accused and convicted of selling secrets to the Germans, who had recently triumphed on the battlefield in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War. Dreyfus’s sentence rested on forged evidence and a single scrap of paper, the so-called bordereau (memorandum) that listed a series of important military secrets. The French army built their case around penmanship, calling upon graphologists who contended that though Dreyfus’s handwriting did not match that of the bordereau, he had deftly “self-forged,” in order to conceal his identity. Upon his conviction, Dreyfus was exiled to Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana. Shortly thereafter, a deluge of evidence emerged that proved the captain’s innocence. This included the revelation of the bordereau’s true author: the turncoat Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. Exasperated at these lapses in justice, the novelist and playwright Émile Zola, in his inflammatory 1898 article “J’Accuse!,” condemned the French military as racist and xenophobic for their conviction of the Jewish Dreyfus. 

Dreyfus’s eventual retrial stretched over a decade: Esterhazy was court-martialed for treason and acquitted in 1898, the same year Zola was prosecuted for criminal libel. Though Dreyfus was returned to France and retried in 1899, he was again convicted before receiving an official pardon. It was not until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally cleared. The Affair became a battleground upon which pro- and anti-Dreyfusard factions defended contesting visions of the French state: they fought over the role of military and religious institutions, the nature of citizenship, and the status of Jews in contemporary society.

A Mockery of Justice encourages us to reconsider the significance of this episode that continues to resonate in the present day. As a Jew, Dreyfus emblematized France’s mounting anti-Semitism in this period, as the Republic and French military promoted xenophobia and racism in support of a Gallican ideal. More than one hundred years later, the Dreyfus affair offers a vivid lesson concerning the dangers of racial prejudice, blind loyalty to the military, and unthinking nationalism.

About this Exhibit

Co-curators Alexis Clark, Kathryn Desplanque, and Emilie Anne-Yvonne Luse are doctoral students in Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University. Thanks to the Duke University Center for Jewish Studies for its generous support, especially to Director Eric Meyers for the creation of the exhibit.  Thanks to the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, especially its gracious and thoughtful staff members J. Andrew Armacost, Mark Zupan, Mike Adamo, Alex Marsh, and Margaret Brown who helped facilitate this exhibition. We further appreciate support from Walter H. Annenberg Professor Neil McWilliam’s encouragement and perceptive advice throughout the exhibition’s organization, and the Universität Potsdam. This exhibit was sponsored in part by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. All images on display in this exhibition are facsimiles; the original publications can be found in the Rubenstein Library.

 A digital collection of the Musée des Horreurs is available http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/museedeshorreurs/

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