Saturday, April 2, 2011

Emile Zola (April 2, 1840)

The Dreyfus Affair divided late-19th century Republican France. Someone had been passing military secrets from the French to the Germans, and one officer with access to the documents, Dreyfus, came under suspicion because he was a Jew. The evidence against him was dubious, but his race was enough to convict him. This was the era when hatred of Jews was a political position, with every effort on the part of the haters to make anti-Semitism respectable -- in fact, they had coined the term itself to justify their beliefs.

After Dreyfus was convicted and sent to Devil's Island, evidence against another officer came to light. A major cover-up followed this discovery, including falsification of documents and widespread conspiracy to change facts and create contradictory evidence. The guilty man, Esterhazy, was the perfect opposite of Dreyfus. His family were old European nobility, he was politically right wing, and he appealed to the anti-Semites. His trial was politically charged; after five minutes of deliberation, the judges declared him innocent, and crowds in the streets cried "Long live the Army!" "Long live France!" and "Death to the Jews!" *

Zola published his famous essay "J'accuse" on January 13, 1898, immediately following Esterhazy's trial. Zola's text presented in detail both the false charges against Dreyfus, the weakness of these charges, and the way they had been falsified. The article is in the form of a letter to the President of the Republic, under the pretense that the President was unaware of the vast injustice that had just occurred.

The initial process that led to the injustice he characterized as "hunting for the 'dirty Jews,' which dishonors our time." He also summarized the creation of a false defense for Esterhazy, who initially was ready to concede that he was the spy. He indites the military, the government, and the press for supporting the injustices.

Near the beginning of "J'accuse," Zola said "The truth I will say, because I promised to say it, if justice, regularly seized, did not do it, full and whole. My duty is to speak, I do not want to be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the specter of innocence that suffer there, through the most dreadful of tortures, for a crime it did not commit."

"J'accuse" means "I accuse" -- Zola accused the French of mocking justice in their persecution of Dreyfus. He characterized the initial events as follows: "the instructions were made thus, as in a 15th century tale, shrouded in mystery, with a savage complication of circumstances, all based on only one childish charge, this idiotic affair, which was not only a vulgar treason, but was also the most impudent of hoaxes, because the famously delivered secrets were almost all without value. If I insist, it is that the kernel is here, from whence the true crime will later emerge, the terrible denial of justice from which France is sick."

Eloquently, Zola continued with the facts and with his accusation: "That a man could be condemned for this act, is a wonder of iniquity. I defy decent people to read it, without their hearts leaping in indignation and shouting their revolt, while thinking of the unwarranted suffering, over there, on Devil's Island."

Zola concluded with a series of accusations, each beginning with the words "I accuse." He named all those who conspired to condemn an innocent man and exonerate a guilty one for the worst possible reasons, and those who were complicit with the conspirators.

Finally, he ended with these words:
"While proclaiming these charges, I am not unaware of subjecting myself to articles 30 and 31 of the press law of July 29, 1881, which punishes the offense of slander. And it is voluntarily that I expose myself."

"As for the people I accuse, I do not know them, I never saw them, I have against them neither resentment nor hatred. They are for me only entities, spirits of social evil. And the act I accomplished here is only a revolutionary mean for hastening the explosion of truth and justice."

"I have only one passion, that of the light, in the name of humanity which has suffered so and is entitled to happiness. My ignited protest is nothing more than the cry of my heart. That one thus dares to translate for me into court bases and that the investigation takes place at the great day!"

"I am waiting."

"Please accept, Mr. President, the assurance of my deep respect."
Indeed, Zola was tried in court, and had to go into exile as a result of his heroic defense of Dreyfus. I'm a big fan of Zola's novels, but it is this commitment to truth at great risk that makes him a hero.

After a 12 year ordeal, Dreyfus received a pardon in 1906. Zola did not live to see it, having died in 1902. The French right never gave up their political commitment to Dreyfus's guilt. Evidence meant nothing to them: it was a matter of conviction and faith to condemn a Jew.

*p. 228, Gregor Dallas, Metro Stop Paris, 2008. Reading this book inspired me to look at "J'accuse."


  1. What a GREAT post, Mae. I was going to twitter his birthday today but I just couldn't find the "proper" link. I'll Twitter your link later on today.

    The only information I have for Zola is about his descriptions of simple meals and banquets from his novels and his infamous dinner parties.

    Thank you so much for sharing...