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
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
*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.)