Settling Dreyfus’s affairs at BU
It all started in October 1894, when an anonymous handwritten letter offering secret French military information was found in the wastebasket of a German military attaché. Viewed as an act of treason, the letter sparked a massive witch-hunt within the French army. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the army’s general staff and a loyal patriot, was ultimately accused of authoring the bordereau. Anti-Semitism was widespread throughout France and Europe at the time, so Dreyfus was an easy target. Despite protestations of innocence and a total lack of solid evidence, a tragic perversion of justice and a military cover-up ensued. Dreyfus was convicted of espionage, stripped of his rank in a humiliating ceremony, and shipped off to life-imprisonment on Devil’s Island. The incident became legendarily known as “the Dreyfus Affair.”
The Power of Prejudice: The Dreyfus Affair, on display through April 6, at Boston University’s 808 Gallery, details the political scandal — through documents, photos, published cartoons, and film — from its disturbing beginnings to its honorable though bittersweet ending. (Dreyfus, who was indeed innocent, was eventually released after almost five years of solitary confinement, and then exonerated and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1906.)
L’affaire Dreyfus was — pardon my French — a real shitshow, the ne plus ultra of 19th-century injustices. Considered by historians not only to be a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust but also a turning point in the then-nascent Zionist movement, the infamous imbroglio shook an embittered France to its very core, nearly launching the country into civil war. The case also brought out the ascendancy of the press and was the first legal battle to be tried in the court of public opinion — pitting Dreyfusards against Anti-Dreyfusards, as they were called — not just within France but internationally. (Incidentally, Dreyfus’s release in 1899 was celebrated right here in Boston at a ball held in the Freemasons building on Tremont Street.)
The powerful exhibit is sponsored by the Florence & Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University, and the New Center for Arts and Culture, whose mission is to build community by exploring Jewish culture and the interconnectedness of all cultures.
“The Dreyfus case in a way takes something that in one sense had already been occurring — injustices against minorities — but makes it public, makes it at the level of the state, makes it international,” says New Center CEO and executive director Dan Neuman. “It shows us the danger of prejudice, of any sort.”
The Power of Prejudice will continue through April 6, at 808 Comm Ave, Boston, 617.358.0922. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 am to 5 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 pm. Admission is free.
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