Friday, January 13, 2023

This Day in Literary History (Zola Sparks Firestorm With Defense of Wrongly Accused Dreyfus)

Jan. 13, 1898—French novelist and journalist Émile Zola had raised the hackles of censors before with his often sexually frank novels. 

But nothing matched the intensity of the storm that swept over him when, in a ringing front-page open letter to the President of the French republic published in the socialist the Socialist newspaper L'Aurore, he charged that army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus had been falsely charged with espionage—and that embarrassed military and political leaders had continued to cover up the miscarriage of justice after learning of their mistake.

Largely apolitical until this time, Zola learned a couple of months before the details of the case from a friend of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, the head of French intelligence—who, for his efforts to reopen the investigation and expose the real spy who had handed a military document to Germany, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, had found himself reassigned to Tunisia.

Zola not only brought to wide public attention the grave injustice done to Dreyfus, who had been stripped of his command and imprisoned in a penal colony on Devil’s Island, but issued a prescient warning about the factor that had made the captain a scapegoat: the “odious anti-Semitism, of which the great liberal France of human rights will die, if she is not cured of it.”

By naming the culprits in the affair—not only Esterhazy but top generals and three handwriting experts who had perpetuated the coverup—Zola took a calculated risk, daring the authorities to prosecute him under defamation laws so that the full details of the case could be exposed at trial.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of the Dreyfus Affair on French political, military, media, cultural, and religious institutions. For a dozen years, the nation was consumed by each twist in this controversy, dividing into roughly two factions: the anti-Dreyfusards, who tended to be monarchist and Roman Catholics; and the Dreyfusards, with a more republican and secular orientation.

Even among the unusual figures in this controversy, Zola stood out. In 20 novels over a four-decade career, he proposed a school of writing that came to be called naturalism, in which characters are observed as if under a microscope, less obedient to free will than to instincts such as greed and lust. His frankness on the latter score, whether through a prostitute in Nana or a pair of adulterous lovers who murder a husband in Therese Raquin, caused sensations.

Zola could be unappreciative or dismissive of people who influenced or aided him. Writing about Gustave Flaubert, he criticized him as “a shameless joker, a paradoxical thinker, an impertinent romantic who made my head spin for hours with a deluge of astonishing theories,” while contrasting Flaubert’s painstaking writing process with his own, which was “forged on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines."

When a British book publisher was prosecuted for obscenity for translating novels by Zola, the writer not only didn’t support his friend but told a reporter that a successful prosecution might be better for him, as readers could hunt them down in the original French rather than endure cheap translations into English.

Assessing Zola in a retrospective history of the first decade of Masterpiece Theatre (which featured an adaptation of Therese Raquin), host Alistair Cooke assailed the author’s “exhibitionism” and flair for self-dramatization. Although there was some truth in the characterization, Zola also truly did expose himself to real legal and physical danger with “J’Accuse.”

He not only was indicted for defamation, as he expected, but also was exposed to death threats provoked by the vitriolic anti-Dreyfusard press. After being condemned to fines and a year-long sentence of imprisonment, he fled to England, where he stayed until the charges against him were dismissed.

Captain Dreyfus would not be reinstated until four years after Zola’s death in 1902. Nevertheless, the novelist died still firmly believing in perhaps the most famous quote from his expose of this shameful chapter in the life of France: “Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it."

The dozen years of the Dreyfus Affair were a mad swirl of events in France’s Third Republic: “intrigues, fraud, resignation and overthrow of ministers and the parliament, riots, assassinations, suicides, the attempt of a coup d’état and an alarmingly widespread anti-Semitism,” in the words of a 2015 post from the Europeana Newspapers blog.

It was a mark of the tumult of the time that even Zola’s death in his home became swallowed up in the dizzying news cycle. Rumors circulated that he had been murdered by anti-Dreyfusard fanatics.

The results of the inquest indicated carbon-monoxide poisoning, but the public was told simply that he had died of natural causes. It would not be until 1927 that an anti-Dreyfusard stove-fitting contractor allegedly confessed on his deathbed to have blocked up the chimney while mending the roof, and not until 1953—a full half-century after Zola’s death—that a French newspaper published this account. After so much time, it may not be possible to fully establish the truth of the account.

(For more on Zola’s still-contested death, see this 2015 blog post from Dr. Gabe Mirkin and Richard Cavendish’s September 2002 account in History Today.)

“J’Accuse” marked the turning point in the larger uproar of the Dreyfus affair, which itself represented a hinge moment in Western history. Its repercussions were long-lasting, even global, as it:

*contributed to the formal separation of church and state in 1905, to prevent any repetition of the virulent anti-Semitism displayed by many French Catholics in the controversy;

*convinced Theodor Herzl that, even after consistent, enduring attempts at assimilation in relatively liberal France, European Jews were not safe, and spurred him to advocate for Jewish immigration to Palestine in an attempt to create their own homeland;

*foreshadowed, through the interaction of government, mass media, and ephemera, the modern news cycle of nonstop ideological firestorms;

*paralleled the 21st-century divide between secular, urban liberals and more religiously orthodox, rural conservatives;

*inspired intellectual crusades against judicial verdicts perceived as blighted by ideology or prejudice—including, in the United States, the Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, and Rosenberg trials.

Even at the turn of the 20th century, film directors recognized the dramatic impact of the Dreyfus Affair, with French filmmaker Georges Méliès staging and shooting 11 one-minute silent reenactments of the trial. In one of the first cases of government censorship of motion pictures, the French government banned further exhibition of Melies’ pioneering film effort. (Indeed, that ban on cinematic treatments of the affair would remain in effect until 1950.) 

That did not stop other nations’ filmmakers from depicting the scandal, including Richard Oswald’s Dreyfus (Germany, 1930); William Dieterle’s The Life of Emile Zola (U.S., 1937); José Ferrer’s I Accuse! (U.K.–U.S., 1958); and Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse) (France, 2019).

(For a useful summary of many of these films, see Thomas Doherty's Fall 2020 overview in Cineaste Magazine.)

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