The origin for the scandal lay in the discovery of a ripped-up letter in a waste basket at the German Embassy in Paris. Having been handed by the cleaner who found it to French counter-espionage, it was found to contain French military secrets and was determined to have been leaked by someone within the General Staff.
Alfred Dreyfus, who had been born into a Jewish family in the Alsace region before its annexation by Germany, had been promoted to the rank of captain by 1889. He joined the General Staff in 1893 but, following the discovery of the letter known as the bordereau, was arrested after his handwriting was compared to that in the letter.
Dreyfus’ trial began on 19 December, but was preceded by weeks of anti-Semitic articles in the right-wing press. The trial itself was conducted in a closed court, where the seven judges unanimously found him guilty of treason after being handed a secret dossier during their deliberations. They declared their verdict on 22 December, and sentenced him to life imprisonment preceded by military degradation. This involved the insignia being torn from his uniform and his sword broken, before being paraded in front of a crowd stirred up by the press shouting, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”
Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, but in France new evidence began to emerge that another officer was the real traitor. With support from the Dreyfusards including the novelist Emile Zola, a retrial in 1899 reduced the sentence while the President of the Republic granted a pardon. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally exonerated and readmitted to the army.