Topic: The Dreyfus Affair through Postcards
Emile Zola, J'accuse
The Dreyfus Affair broke out in France in 1894, when a Jewish officer in the French Army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was suddenly arrested and (wrongfully) accused of spying on behalf of Germany. He was quickly tried, condemned for high treason, and sent to a penitentiary on a far-flung island. After twelve years of debate and petitions, his supporters were able to reverse the decision, clear Dreyfus's record and rehabilitate him in the army in 1906, while the real spy, Esterhazy, was discovered.
The Dreyfus case was the first case of modern anti-Semitism, i.e. racial rather than religious: Jews were accused of double allegiance, of not being trustworthy or patriotic, and of “being everywhere and belonging nowhere,” in spite of the fact that they were fully integrated citizens of Western countries such as France, served in the army, paid taxes and occupied official positions. French anti-Semites discovered that mistrust and resentment of Jews could still find a large popular consensus, even in a Republic that was home to the idea of emancipation and equal civil rights.
This incident divided French society and other European countries into two camps: politicians, journalists, artists and other citizens took sides for or against Dreyfus at a time when mass media were gaining incredible power. The main defender of Dreyfus was the French writer Emile Zola, who wrote an open letter to the President, “J’accuse” (I Accuse), in which he stated, "Dreyfus is a victim in the hunt for the 'dirty Jew,' which is a disgrace in our day and age." The Dreyfus Affair is considered to have been instrumental in shaping the modern figure of the intellectual as a writer with national stature who takes a position in current political and social matters, and whose opinion influences an ongoing debate. To this day, the Dreyfus Affair has inspired hundreds of mediations, from caricatures to serialized novels, from board games to films, from popular songs to postcards.
At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, the abundant production of iconographic materials was due in part to the newness of the medium. The burgeoning of photography as a popular medium is evidenced in the many small photographic portraits mounted on paperboard backings that were distributed in society like calling cards, in the reproduced snapshots from the trial, and also in spoofs that availed themselves of photographic tricks in order to feature famous pro-Dreyfus and anti-Dreyfus antagonists in amicable embrace. Picture postcards, too, began as something of a novelty and quickly rose to the height of fashion. Cards of all sorts--depicting scenes from the Affair, featuring caricatures or photos of important figures, popularizing Devil’s Island or the “proof of guilt,” expressing hatred or support--circulated freely and widely both locally and internationally. Prominent artists created special limited collector’s editions. Because they were cheap to produce and cheap to send, and because mail was delivered two or three times a day, postcards served as an easy and popular communication tool. They also brought along a revolution in communication by forcing a sender to write a very brief message, whether an announcement or greetings, that would be delivered almost immediately to the addressee. At the same time, a postcard was not confidential, and there might be more than one reader of it, including unintended ones.
The side containing the illustration was often a caricature, an engraving or a photograph, and could appear with or without a caption. When the focus was current events, the sender conveyed through the choice of postcard that they were a witness of something happening, and wanted to share the news with the addressee, who, in turn, became an insider and acquired knowledge.
The choice of sending a postcard in favor or against Dreyfus was a political statement, along with the commentary written by the sender: examples include a card that offers a grim image of Dreyfus in prison, while the written message talks about beautiful weather. Another sender shares his sympathy for Dreyfus and his wife as the postcard shows them reunited after years of separation. Another postcard writer scribbles that these cards should be collected right now, as they reflect History in the making, and are a valuable testimony. This interest for collecting is the last link in the life of a postcard, after it has been designed, produced, purchased, sent and read. The need to save and keep goes against the ephemeral nature of postcards, which are meant to be for here and now, whether because of their visual side (a panoramic view of a tourist site this year; a caricature of an event unfolding at the present time), or because of the message they carry (wishes for the New Year, invitation to a party, news from another country).
Topics of Discussion
1. Look at the different representations of Dreyfus on the postcards below, and compare them by looking at the details, style, colors, caption, etc. What does each postcard tell us about Dreyfus and about the illustrator’s view of Dreyfus?
Details of various postcards featuring Captain Dreyfus
Click to enlarge
2. Make the same comparison with postcards representing Zola.
Details of various postcards featuring writer Emile Zola
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3. What are the benefits and limitations of caricature in conveying a message? Analyze the postcard below and discuss its interpretation of the Dreyfus Affair, and how caricature is used in this case.
1899, “The strength of the testimony by the Chief of Staff.” The military Chief of Staff is building proof (against Dreyfus).
4. The postcard below bears the pre-printed address of Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, and was sent to show support for her husband. Discuss the purpose and effect of mass mailing, and petitioning, and compare postcards to contemporary mass media with the same objective.
Postcard bearing the pre-printed address of Dreyfus’ wife, Lucie
Official Dreyfus archive established by the Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaïsme in Paris:
English translation of "J'accuse" by Zola:
A chronological and detailed account of the affair, illustrated with postcards from the time:
A Witness to Its Time: Art and the Dreyfus Affair: A Review Essay. Reviewed Work(s): The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice by Norman L. Kleeblatt Review author[s]: Dora E. Polachek Modern Judaism, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May, 1990), pp. 205-214.
The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical Paula Hyman. Journal of Modern History, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 88-109