LAW FIRM Arnold Bloch Leibler will help bring the story of the notorious Dreyfus Affair to Australia in an exhibition of original material, newspaper reports, artwork and letters that will tour Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne.
J’accuse! The Dreyfus Affair offers a glimpse into the machinations of power, politics and prejudice surrounding the scandal in France at the end of the 19th Century.
“While we might think society has progressed the last century, many of the moral, sociological, political and ethical concerns raised by the Dreyfus Affair - bully boy tactics, the devalued role of the artists and intellectuals in society, individual vulnerability to the state, racial, cultural and religious stereotyping - remain as perturbing and destructive now as they were then,” said Peter Seidel, head of Arnold Bloch Leibler’s public interest law practice.
Seidel said such problems could still be found in affairs of the state, including in mandatory detention, sedition laws, beachside riots and “religious lampooning”.
The exhibition is now in Melbourne and will be transferred to Sydney’s Jewish Museum later this year and to Adelaide’s Migration Museum of South Australia at the beginning of next year. According to Seidel, “now more than ever the Dreyfus Affair can teach us valuable lessons in the struggle for a mature, sophisticated, multicultural Australia”.
The Dreyfus Affair inflamed France at the end of the 19th Century, and was a catalyst for a commitment to democracy and human rights. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew and captain in the French army, was wrongly accused and convicted of being a spy.
Right wing newspapers and the Catholic Church campaigned against Dreyfus, fanning the flames of racism by declaring that, as a Jew, his loyalty to France was suspect. He was denied access to the evidence against him in a secret hearing and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on a penal colony in French Guyana.
The Dreyfus Affair polarised France between the nationalists, for whom the safeguarding of authoritarian institutions of church, military and state were paramount. Opposing them were the ‘Dreyfusards’ — artists, intellectuals and radicals who were outraged at Dreyfus’ treatment. The latter included writer Emile Zola, who published J’Accuse, an attack on the corrupt government, military and bureaucrats who conspired to condemn Dreyfus.
Dreyfus was absolved and allowed home in 1906, after 12 years’ imprisonment. But it was not until 1995, more than a century after his arrest, that the French military publicly acknowledged his innocence.