In 1894 – (122 years ago) – Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer of Jewish descent, was arrested for treason and falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. His case would spark intense public debate after newspapers reported that evidence proving his innocence was being covered up by the army. Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Meanwhile, protests led by prominent intellectuals culminated in a front-page newspaper piece entitled “J’accuse . . . !” by the writer Émile Zola, accusing the French military command of being motivated by anti-Semitism to convict an innocent man. Zola’s article and his subsequent trial and conviction for libel led to a reopening of the Dreyfus case. And although Dreyfus was again convicted, the French president bowed to public outcry in granting him a pardon. It was only in 1906 — twelve years after the original arrest — that further evidence and litigation led to Dreyfus being officially exonerated and readmitted to the French army with promotion and honors.
In 1940 – (76 years ago) – the last president of Catalonia was executed by a Spanish fascist firing squad. Lluís Companys had been active for years as a lawyer and leader in Catalan nationalist groups that sought to create an autonomous political entity within a larger Iberian federation. Amid the turbulent Spanish politics of the 1920s and ’30s, Companys held increasingly important offices and was in and out of prison more than a dozen times. In 1934 he was elected president of a newly proclaimed Catalan state, only to be to be arrested and jailed after just a few hours in office. In 1936 he was released from prison by the new left-wing Republican Spanish government, just in time to be caught up in the violent chaos of the Spanish Civil War. In the struggle against right-wing Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco and aided by Nazi Germany, Companys reluctantly cooperated with Marxists and anarchists in Barcelona until they were finally crushed by Franco’s forces and the civil war came to a bloody end. Companys escaped to France for a few months in exile, but was captured by Nazi German occupiers who sent him back to Spain, where he was quickly tried and executed. The main stadium used in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics is named after him.
In 1970 – (46 years ago) – the partial collapse of the West Gate Bridge — under construction in Melbourne, Australia — sent a two-thousand-ton chunk of the span falling more than 150 feet into the Yarra River with an impact and explosion that was heard up to twelve miles away. Thirty-five workers were killed and another eighteen were seriously injured in the blast and the fire that followed. Some of those workers were inside the span when it fell; others were eating their lunch in huts on the riverside below. Investigators later found that two girders that were to be joined had been a few inches out of alignment, and that bridge builders had lined them up by weighing down the higher one with huge concrete blocks. This made it possible to join the girders, but it also caused visible stress on the span. When the concrete blocks were removed, the metal snapped and the span collapsed. Construction was halted for two years, but the West Gate Bridge finally opened in 1978. It’s now one of the busiest bridges in Australia — hosting up to 200,000 vehicles a day, and about one suicide every three weeks.
Rotten History is written by Renaldo Migaldi