Alfred Dreyfus

The trial of Alfred Dreyfus in France in 1895 was a pivotal event.  Dreyfus was a Jewish captain in the French military, accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. He was tried and convicted.

Rumors that he had been framed made the trial into front page controversy with the Dreyfusards pitted against the anti- Dreyfusards.  The controversy became centered on his Jewish heritage and brought out the anti-Semitism that had remained barely below the social surface.

Picture the trial as the OJ Simpson trial in France in 1895.  The sentiments paralleled the famous Leo Frank trial in Atlanta only a few years later (1913). Because of the controversy he was retired and eventually acquitted. It was proven that he was framed.  The trials dragged on for years.  (Leo Frank fared less well; after a new trial was ordered by Governor Slaton, Frank was kidnapped and lynched. )

J’Accuse (The Accused) was an open letter written by Emile Zola to the French government protesting the unfair treatment and blatant anti-Semitism.  A correspondent from Vienna covering the trial, Theodore Herzl, started the Zionist movement as a result of his observations of the trial.  He observed that any hope that modern institutions would reject centuries of anti-Semitism was a false hope and began the quest to create a Jewish homeland.  The roots of modern Israel lay in the Dreyfus trial.

Theodore Herzl

It was during this trial that the word ‘intellectual’ was coined in France in reference to those who supported Dreyfus. ‘Intellectual’ was a derogatory term equated with “the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound.”  Those who used the word ‘intellectual’ with such contempt considered themselves to be defending an “organic, harmonious and ordered society against nihilism.”[i]

Today I consider an intellectual one who has a keen interest, either professional or otherwise,  in writing, thinking, and discovering insights and concepts that would ultimately clarify our human condition.  I respect especially the ‘blue collar’ intellectuals who are able to combine the ideals of intellectual pursuit with real world experience, as opposed to academic intellectuals who have less real world experience.

I do find it interesting how words like ‘intellectual’ and ‘liberal’ have changed from their original meaning or intent in the old country.


[i] From “Letters to a Young Contrarian” by Christopher Hitchens