J’accuse! The Link Between the Dreyfus Affair and Today

Imagine a trial rocking a nation: accusations of collusion with a hated enemy, wealthy and influential elites taking sides, an entire country riveted by headlines. The trial would fundamentally alter the country; both changing how citizens viewed each other, the military and other national institutions.

No, this is not related to the current investigation into President Trump’s alleged ties. While the Dreyfus Affair, as it would become known, happened more than a century ago, there are more than a few passing similarities between the events of today and those from the 1890’s.

In 1894, a young army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of selling military plans to France’s mortal enemy, Germany. In a highly publicized trial, Dreyfus was convicted of treason and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island, France’s military prison island in the Caribbean. Soon after Dreyfus’ family began appealing the decision. The case split the country; conservative pro-army factions clashed openly with intellectual pro-republican leaders. In January 1898, Émile Zola published J’accuse…!, a rallying cry of support exonerating Dreyfus. Eventually cleared of his treason conviction, Dreyfus was instead sentenced to a 10 years hard labor, although that too was commuted. It wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was officially cleared of his conviction.

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National Holidays and Settler Colonialism

I have fond memories of spending childhood Thanksgivings with my Slovak grandmother in Eastern Pennsylvania. Never a traditional meal, we ate city chicken and Serviettenknödel (a Bohemian dish not dissimilar to traditional dressing). The stories I heard around the dinner table were of the hardships of my immigrant family coming to the U.S. and, despite facing immense adversity, surviving and thriving due to honest hard work. Despite learning about the myths surrounding Thanksgiving and teaching my high school students about Indigenous genocides, it’s been only recently that I began to connect these stories to the larger narrative of U.S. settler colonialism. Maybe it’s because my holiday traditions seemed so rooted in my family’s immigrant past and stories of hardships and survival, which seemed so removed from the myths of Native and European encounters. Maybe it’s a reluctance to connect my happy childhood memories and traditions to ideas of genocide.

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