How the Antisemitic Dreyfus Affair Led to the Creation of the Tour de France

How a group of anti-Dreyfusards channeled their anger into the creation of one of the world's most popular sporting events, centered on a new invention: the bicycle.

Alfred Dreyfus, stripped of his ranks, La Petite Journal, January 13, 1895. From the National Library’s collections

Alfred Dreyfus is stripped of his ranks, La Petite Journal, January, 1895. From the collections of the National Library of Israel

This is the story of a footnote to two major events in French history – the Dreyfus Affair and the introduction of the world’s greatest bicycle race, the Tour de France, that briefly, and ever so slightly intersected in June of 1899.

Following a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the French Third Rebublic placed its focus on the rebuilding of national pride – Revanchism.

The newly invented bicycle quickly became a symbol of health, fitness, and modernity, and a national obsession with cycling saw races taking place all over the country by the 1890s. The insatiable appetite for cycling meant an increase in the desire for news about the sport while manufacturers of bicycles and cycling components made use of the media for advertising purposes. Competing newspapers set up races to promote themselves.

In many senses the Third Republic was progressive but it was also beset by crises. One of these, the Panama Canal scandal, fostered growth in antisemitism since two of the businessmen at the center of it, and upon whom the patriotic press focused, were German Jews. This brought monarchists into conflict with Republicans, and Catholics into conflict with secularists – antagonisms that continued with the Dreyfus Affair. Throughout the nineteenth-century Jews enjoyed a degree of emancipation and political and commercial influence, thus feeding the antisemitic “international-Jewish-lobby” trope.

The Trap set for Dreyfus​ "Dreyfus the Martyr", The Graphic London, 1899 National Library of Israel
The Trap Set for Dreyfus, “Dreyfus the Martyr”, The Graphic London, 1899. From the collections of the National Library of Israel.

Four years after Dreyfus’s original conviction based on concocted evidence, the affair rumbled on.  The real culprit, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, had been identified but was quickly cleared by a military court determined to hold tight to the army’s position and avoid humiliation. By the time Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse” article was published, the country was deeply split between those who were for and those who were against Dreyfus.

Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse”
“J’Accuse”, Emile Zola’s famous article in L’Aurore, January 3, 1898, from the collections of the National Library of Israel.

On February 16, 1899, French President Felix Faure suffered a brain hemorrhage while in the arms of his Jewish mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. His sudden death presented an opportunity for the Dreyfusards as Faure was succeeded by Emile Loubet, a left-leaning senator from humble origins who was very much a friend of the underdog. He was popular enough with other members of the national assembly to easily beat his opponent for the Presidency, but not universally popular across the riven nation; Loubet was seen as an enemy of the anti-Dreyfusards because he supported reviews of the trials of Dreyfus and Esterhazy.

On June 3, 1899, the Supreme Court overturned the original court-martial judgment against Dreyfus and ordered a retrial. Tensions were high when, the following day, Loubet accepted an invitation to watch horse-racing at the Auteuil Race Course.

Alfred Dreyfus at his Rehabilitation Ceremony
Alfred Dreyfus at his Rehabilitation Ceremony, July 21, 1906, from the Dreyfus Family Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Unlike the Longchamp racecourse which was frequented by the lower classes, and therefore Loubet’s core support, Auteuil was the playground of the wealthy, monarchist, anti-Republican and mainly anti-Dreyfusard classes. Loubet’s presence was seen as provocative and he was confronted by hordes outraged by the order for a retrial. The demonstration turned violent almost as soon as the President took his seat. Among those who were arrested following the fracas was the wealthy industrialist Jules Albert Compte de Dion.

The pugnacious de Dion had two passions – engineering and dueling.  At one point, his automobile company, De Dion Bouton, was the largest manufacturer of cars in the world.

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Pierre Gifford, the editor of the Le Velo newspaper, criticized the demonstration, as did much of French society, appalled at the humiliating treatment of the President by these uncouth aristocrats.

Politically, Gifford was on the left and wrote scathing articles criticizing De Dion and other anti-Dreyfusards, despite many of them being important advertisers in his newspaper.  Gifford’s reporting of the demonstration incensed De Dion and others industrialists such as Eduard Michelin, a vigorous antisemite, and Gustave Clement.

The Le Velo newspaper which covered sport and politics, dominated the sports paper market, enabling it to command high advertising rates. It was also financially backed by the Darracq motor company – a rival automobile manufacturer to De Dion and Clement.

Giffard’s criticism following the Auteuil incident was the last straw.  The anti-Dreyfusard businessmen were already frustrated that Le Velo had a virtual monopoly and was controlled by one of their rivals. Dion and his allies decided to withdraw their advertising and to launch their own rival paper, L’Auto-Velo, under the editorship of Henri Desgrange, a man with significant experience in journalism and the world of cycling.

L’Auto Velo, the first edition.
L’Auto Velo, the first edition.

De Dion chose Desgrange to be his editor for his hard-headed, opinionated and autocratic style.  He left the running of the paper to Desgrange with a single instruction: to drive Le Velo out of business.

L’Auto-Velo was launched on October 16th, 1900 and was printed on yellow paper to distinguish it from the green of Le Velo, a decision that was to have lasting significance.

In November 1902, as the renamed L’Auto struggled with circulation at consistently around a quarter of that of Le Velo, Desgrange held a crisis meeting.  It was at this meeting that a young reporter by the name of Geo Lefevre, allegedly desperate to suggest something, spontaneously floated the idea of the Tour de France as a promotional enterprise.

Desgrange initially received the idea with skepticism, but after consulting his finance manager, he decided to launch the race in January of 1903. To his surprise “Le Tour” was an immediate success for the paper with circulation rising from around 25,000 to 65,000 after the first edition of the race, spelling disaster for Le Velo which ceased publication in 1904.

Le Tour de France is announced in L’Auto.

L’Auto went on to enjoy massive benefit on the back of the Tour de France, and, by the time of the 1923 tour, it was selling 500,000 copies a day during the race. Sales peaked at over 850,000 during the 1933 tour.

Desgrange stayed in charge until his death in 1940 when the paper was taken over by a German consortium.  During the war period L’Auto was not unsympathetic to the Nazis, allowing it to continue operating under the Vichy government, but after the war, it was shut down along with all other pro-German publications. From the ashes of L’Auto emerged the now popular French sports paper, L’Equipe.

So, if we look back and connect the dots, we can see that, if it wasn’t for Alfred Dreyfus and his antisemitic ordeal, there would be no Tour de France.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


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The Women Who Captivated Muslim Travelers of the Middle Ages

Descriptions of Muslim travel in the middle ages reveal exotic marriage customs and a meeting with a Jewish doctor expelled from Spain


13th century illustration of pilgrims on their way to Mecca

The pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, called the hajj in Arabic, is one of the five central commandments in Islam. Every believing Muslim is obligated to fulfill this commandment at least once in his life. But, for Muslims in the middle ages, it was only one of many opportunities for Muslims to explore the far-reaching Muslim empires.

These empires were dominated by trade, and the imperial trade routes offered merchants and adventurers countless opportunities to leave their homes and see new places.

Cover of “Muslim Travels in the Middle Ages”


Among the hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts stored in the Islam and the Middle East Collection at the National Library of Israel is a book that looks innocent enough. It title is  الرحالة المسلمون في العصور الوسطى or “Muslim Travels in the Middle Ages” tells the stories of some of these travelers and provides a glimpse into the strange and distant land they encountered on their journeys.

A sketch of the earth by Muhammad al-Idrisi, born 1100 in Spain. One of the great Muslim geographers

Among the many names in the book, the most famous is probably that of Ibn Battuta, who lived in the 14th century. The words of the renowned scholar and Muslim traveler illustrate in great detail the Muslim custom of taking an additional, local wife when one arrives in a new land. Whenever he was in a particular country for business, he would stay with his local wife (or wives). We know that Ibn Battuta had at least six different wives during his lifetime – two in Egypt and four in the Maldives. Of the women he met in the Maldives he said:

“Marriage is easy on these islands. Dowry is rare, and it is good and proper to socialize with women…they never leave their country, and I have never seen anything more beautiful in the world than these women… [here he includes a description of how these women pleasure their men] and the custom is that the woman does not eat with her husband, and that the man does not know what his wife eats.”


Kill an enemy to marry a woman. Soleiman al-Tajir’s description from the book.

Another example of marriage customs is seen in the travel diary of Soleiman al-Tajir, who wrote about his travels to ninth-century India. “There is much gold there. They eat coconuts and use them to fight and draw. If any of them wants to get married he need but bring a man’s skull back from their enemies. Killing two people allows him to marry twice, and he who kills fifty will marry fifty women…”

In Morocco, North Africa, the traveler Zakariya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini  (1203-1283) came across a city that had very different customs than any other found by previous travelers. This was the city of women. Al-Qazwini wrote, “They are women whose men do not control them. They ride horses and engage in war all on their own. They have strength and power…and they have slaves. Every servant belongs to his mistress, and they rise before the dawn.”

Muslim travelers did not only meet women on their journeys, however. Abd al-Basset tells of an encounter with a Jewish doctor he met in Algeria in the 15th century. At the end of this century, all Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain. He writes, “I needed the most skilled physician Musa Ben Samuel Ben Yehuda of Israel…I have not heard of or seen one so skillful and professional in his field as he, knowledgeable in contemporary science as well as in ancient science…he is of the Jews of Spain originally and is a great expert in the field… “

Thanks to Tehila Bigman of the National Library’s Arabic catalogue for her help in translating the excerpts and in composing this article.

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How Bergen-Belsen Survivors Celebrated Independence

Take a rare look inside the newspapers published by the inhabitants of the concentration camp after liberation.

Survivors from Bergen-Belsen immigrating to the land of Israel. A photograph from the album, “Destruction and Rebirth: Bergen-Belsen 1945-1965”

The Bergen-Belsen camp was established in Germany in the 1930s to house workers who were constructing a military camp near the village of Belsen. The camp held Polish, French, Dutch and Belgian prisoners of war at the beginning of World War II. In 1941, thousands of Russian prisoners of war were detained at the camp.

At the same time, the German Foreign Ministry ordered the rounding up of Jews with dual citizenship or citizenship of neutral countries in order to exchange them for German citizens who had been taken captive in the Allied countries, such as the German Templar communities in Palestine. In 1943, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler ordered that these “exchange Jews” (Austauschjuden) be moved from a camp in Poland to a camp in Germany. The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was chosen as the new detention center for these Jews. The lives of a few of the “exchange Jews” were spared when they were returned to their country of origin in exchange for captured Germans. The vast majority, however, did not share this fate.

Within a short time, other European Jews joined the “exchange Jews” at the camp. In the spring of 1944, transports of ill Jews arrived from other camps. Their compromised state of health, combined with the abusive treatment in the camp, greatly increased the mortality rate at Bergen-Belsen. Later, the Germans transferred in Jews from other camps that were deemed too close to the eastern front, including those who had survived the death marches. The camp administration had never planned to hold such a large number of prisoners, and Bergen-Belsen soon became a place of widespread starvation, typhus, dysentery, suffering, and death.


The camp’s survivors sit, packed together. A photograph from the album, “Destruction and Rebirth: Bergen-Belsen 1945-1965”

On April 15, 1945, British armed forces arrived at the site, liberated the camp and arrested its Nazi administrators. The British were shocked by what they saw. One of the first officers to arrive was the chief medical officer of the Second Army, Glyn Hughes. He described a terrible density of humanity in the barracks, where the living and the dead lay side by side. More than 40,000 prisoners were found in the camp, 28,000 of whom required medical treatment. Among the living prisoners, the British also found 10,000 bodies. Thousands of other bodies were found piled in mass, uncovered graves at the edge of the camp,

The British army, the Red Cross and later, Jewish aid organizations such as the Joint, the Jewish Relief Unit, the Jewish Agency, and other organizations sent food, clothing, medical supplies, and relief workers. Sadly, these efforts did not always succeed in helping the starving and sick prisoners. In the weeks following the liberation of the camp 15,000 people died. In most cases however, the survivors’ will to live overcame the compromised state they were found in.

The pictures in the history books change with surprising speed. In the first few pages, we see pictures of horrifying scenes – heaps of dead bodies alongside walking skeletons waiting desperately for their last day. But, shortly following, are group photos featuring smiling, healthy faces and well-dressed children kicking a ball around. In short order, the survivors began to rebuild their lives. Three days after the liberation, on the 5th of Iyar, the date on which David Ben-Gurion would announce the establishment of the State of Israel just three years later, a Jewish committee was established in the camp. The chairman of the committee, from its establishment until the eventual closure of the camp, was Josef Rosensaft.

On May 21, after all the prisoners had been transferred to a nearby military base, the British burned down the camp in order to eliminate rampant typhoid. Over time, a series of monuments and memorials were erected in the location where the concentration camp stood.


Crowds watching flames and smoke in the camp’s vicinity after the British forces entered

With the war over, Jewish life developed rapidly in the new Bergen-Belsen camp for displaced persons. The first wedding of survivors was held in June of 1945. Children of survivors – the next generation – were born in the camp. Among them was Shlomo Goldberg who would later devote nearly 50 years of work to the National Library in Jerusalem.

Within a short time, a primary and secondary school, a Yiddish theater, a hospital, sports teams, and a center of Zionist political activism were all established in the camp. Many came to visit the displaced and assist whenever possible. Just as in the pre-war period, the survivors now joined the various Zionist organizations and extensive Zionist activity began to take shape at the camp.

Many works and periodicals were published in the camp, mainly in Yiddish. A booklet containing copies of 58 periodicals, books, poems and more is now kept in the National Library of Israel. All of the works within the booklet were printed at Bergen-Belsen.


A booklet that was published in the camp.

The first periodical issued by the survivors was published on July 12, 1945, in the town of Celle, in the British zone near Bergen-Belsen. The title of the publication was “Undzer Shtime” (“Our Voice”). Printing in Bergen-Belsen itself began with the second issue.

In the first issue, which opens with the Yizkor (memorial) prayer, David Rosenthal wrote about the decision to publish the journal and the reasons behind it. “The Jewish word will be heard in the land of our enemy,” Rosenthal explained. He added that the purpose of the newspaper was “to reflect our daily lives and to make contact with our brothers in the other camps.”

The publication focused on youth education and national Zionist education in general. The newspaper detailed the suffering of the survivors in the camp and fumed at the British closure of the gates to the Land of Israel. It included articles on the history of the Jewish people, Jewish holidays and festivals, Zionism, and settlement. It offered information about what was happening in the camp, news from the Land of Israel, reviews of Nazi trials, and more.

Since there was no Hebrew typewriter available in the camp, the first four issues were handwritten and then duplicated for distribution. Issue No. 5 was the first to be written on a typewriter. The camp received one typewriter from soldiers of the Jewish Brigade who came into Germany from Italy, and another from a Jewish-Canadian soldier. Around the time of issue No. 12, members of the editorial board were able to obtain a more professional printing machine.

“Undzer Shtime” was intended to be a bi-weekly magazine, but it was not always published in an organized fashion. During its two years, only 24 issues were published. The last issue was published on October 30th, 1947. The three editors (Rafael Olewski, Paul Trepman, and David Rosenthal) belonged to various Zionist parties, which helped maintain the paper’s neutrality and non-partisan approach.

The “Undzer Shtime” editorial board. From the left: David Rosenthal, Paul Trappman and Rafael Olavsky. A picture from “The Tear,” by Rafael Olavsky

The “Wochenblatt” newspaper began to appear in Bergen-Belsen on December 5, 1947, a week after the passing of the UN resolution to establish a Jewish state. The title of the main article in the first issue was “The End of Homelessness, the End of our Wandering- A Jewish State in the Land of Israel. ” Like its predecessor, this newspaper was also issued by the Central Committee for Liberated Jews in the British Zone in Bergen-Belsen. Members of the editorial board were the same members who served on the editorial board of the “Undzer Shtime.” Over time, as the original editors left Germany, they were replaced by other editors.

After two months, the periodical evolved into a bi-weekly paper. It resembled any other newspaper in that the editors made sure to provide news to its readers but, like “Undzer Shtime,” “Wochenblatt” contained a fair amount of articles about camp life, news from the Jewish world, sports and culture. The “Wochenblatt” advocated for Jewish rights, warned against anti-Semitism in Germany, and published the names of former Bergen-Belsen detainees who had fallen in battle in the Land of Israel. The newspaper called on the Jews to leave Germany, which was still difficult as the struggle for independence in the State of Israel trudged on.

On Friday, May 14, 1948, an important article appeared in the newspaper. It was entitled, “The Eve of a Jewish State.” Although rumors were circulating, the editors had no way of knowing that that very day in the Land of Israel, Ben-Gurion would announce the establishment of the State. The announcement was heard in Bergen-Belsen that night on the radio.

“The Eve of a Jewish State.” Issue No. 19, May 14, 1948

The next morning the camp residents woke to loud singing and cries of joy at the birth of the State of Israel. Jews danced in the streets and in synagogues. The youth distributed flyers in the camp, calling on all residents to celebrate the establishment of the State and to participate in a festive rally to be held later in the day. At the rally the chairman of the Central Committee, Josef Rosensaft, announced that recruits from the camp would soon arrive in Israel to serve in the new Israeli military. The group of recruits was invited onto the stage to thunderous applause.

The next issue of “Wochenblatt,” which came out a week later, was titled “Jewish Independence: Reality.”


“Jewish Independence – Reality.” Issue No. 19, May 21, 1948

In the 79th issue of “Wochenblatt,” Josef Rosensaft wrote that the Bergen-Belsen camp was in its closing stages and that the last Jews in the camp would be moved to the Jever displaced persons camp. It was there that the 80th and final issue of the “Wochenblatt” was published on August 18, 1950. It focused on the conclusion of the Jewish Agency’s activities in Germany. The Jever camp was closed the following year.

In September 2010, the Sh’erit Hapleta survivors organization of Bergen-Belsen in Israel published the newsletter “Our Voice – Undzer Shtime”. This time the newsletter was not printed in Yiddish in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons’ camp, but in the free city of Tel Aviv in the local language of Hebrew.


“Our Voice,” a newsletter issued by the survivors of Bergen-Belsen in Israel


The Jewish Lawyer Who Drafted the Constitution of the Weimar Republic

Hugo Preuss is still considered to be the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic today.

Weimar constitution

From the National Library of Israel collections.

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Hugo Preuss
Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

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Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives – though it seems to have anticipated the future since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945 with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss, image from the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this position for 15 years since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament. He also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’ resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text despite the fact that most of it was his brainchild, as the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

B3 Weimarer Verfassung1--780X1015
The title page of the printed constitution that was distributed to male and female pupils upon finishing their school education. From the National Library collection.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.


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