This Day In Writing History
On July 19th, 1898, the legendary French novelist Emile Zola was forced to flee France to escape imprisonment after being convicted of libel. Zola's conviction resulted from the publication of his most famous non-fiction work, J'Accuse, an open letter to France's president, Felix Faure. The letter would expose one of history's most famous - and shameful - political scandals. It was called the Dreyfus Affair.
Emile Zola was born in Paris in 1840. He rose from humble working class roots to become one of France's greatest writers. Though he became wealthy, he never forgot his roots. He was a lifelong socialist. He was also a leading figure in the intellectual movement of his time. As young man, before he made his name as a writer, he openly denounced Napoleon III, the nephew of ex-emperor Napoleon I. In 1848, three years after he was elected President of the French Second Republic, Napoleon III staged a coup and overthrew the republic, establishing himself as the new emperor.
After Napoleon III was deposed in 1870, (following France's disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War) the French Third Republic was established. It would remain in power for 70 years, until the Nazis invaded in 1940. In its early days, the French Third Republic was a right wing nationalist government, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and the French Army. It gave new meaning to Oscar Wilde's definition of patriotism as a virtue of the vicious.
Of course, not everyone in France agreed with their government. A great split was brewing. Intellectuals such as Emile Zola were concerned by not only the political atmosphere, but also the growing plague of anti-Semitism that was spreading throughout France - a plague being spread by the Church, the army, and the right wing press. It was this climate of right wing nationalism and anti-Semitism that led to the Dreyfus Affair.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was an artillery officer in the French Army who had been accused of turning military secrets over to a contact at the German Embassy. Although there was no evidence to prove his guilt, he was nonetheless convicted of treason and sent to Devil's Island, the notorious prison in French Guiana. Some people believed that Dreyfus had been railroaded because he was Jewish. Later, one Lt. Colonel Georges Picquart discovered evidence proving that another officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, had committed the crime for which Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted and imprisoned.
Rather than release Dreyfus, Picquart's superior, Hubert-Joseph Henry, forged documents to make it look like Dreyfus was guilty. Then he reassigned Picquart to a remote post in Africa. Before he left for his new post, Picquart told Dreyfus' supporters what he knew about the case. For this, he would be court-martialed and sentenced to 60 days in jail. The right wing government refused to allow new evidence to be introduced.
Emile Zola could stand no more. He wrote an open letter to President Felix Faure, which would be published in the January 13th, 1898 issue of L'Aurore, then France's most prominent and respected liberal newspaper. J'Accuse (I Accuse) described the plot to frame Alfred Dreyfus for espionage, accusing by name the Army officers responsible. This cabal of officers, led by one Lt. Colonel Du Paty de Clam, all of them devout Catholics and ferocious anti-Semites, framed Dreyfus for two reasons: to protect the real culprit and to rid the French Army of one more "dirty Jew."
Why would soldiers protect a comrade whom they knew had committed treason? Because they also knew that he was a double agent. Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy had been working for the French Secret Service, pretending to spy for Germany. The "secrets" he was passing to the Germans were carefully crafted pieces of disinformation. To prevent Esterhazy's cover from being blown, the conspiring officers were more than happy to sacrifice the life of an innocent Jew. They got away with it in the name of national security.
Since Emile Zola was one of the most prominent intellectuals in France, the publication of J'Accuse resulted in a huge uproar - an outrage that divided the French people in half and shocked other countries. The Catholic Church backed the government and the Army. La Croix, France's most prominent Catholic newspaper, ran daily anti-Semitic editorials and blasted Zola.
As Zola expected, he was stripped of the Legion of Honor and quickly arrested. Charged with libel, he was convicted just over two weeks later and sentenced to a year in jail. He fled to England, where he stayed for over ten years. He returned to France in June of 1899, just in time to see the right wing government fall. The new liberal government added to the republic's constitution a separation of Church and state.
The case of Alfred Dreyfus was taken up again. The government would not exonerate him, because that would have involved introducing classified Secret Service documents into the public record. So, they offered him a pardon instead, which he accepted. But the truth was on the march, as Zola said, and in 1906, the French Supreme Court finally exonerated Alfred Dreyfus. He was readmitted to the Army and promoted in rank. He would later serve in World War 1 and retire from the military with the rank of Lt. Colonel and the Legion of Honor award.
Emile Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902 at the age of 62. Many years later, a Parisian roofer confessed on his deathbed to killing Zola by closing his chimney. He claimed it was a political assassination.
The complete text of Zola's classic letter, J'Accuse, can be found here.
In 1998, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of J'Accuse, the still prominent Catholic newspaper La Croix finally issued a public apology for its long history of anti-Semitism and the role it played in the Dreyfus Affair.
Quote Of The Day
"I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul." - Emile Zola
Today's video features a reading from Emile Zola's classic novel, Germinal (1855). Enjoy!