J’accuse – Émile Zola and Alfred Dreyfus

Today, January 13th, is the anniversary of the famous “J’accuse” open letter from the great author Emile Zola to Félix Faure, the President of the French Republic in the newspaper L’Aurore.

The translated text of the letter can be found here. It is essentially a letter that lays out the widespread concerns over the continued imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus [on Devil’s Island, the future home of Papillon], a French Jewish artillery captain on faked charges of espionage when it became known subsequently that the real spy was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

The accusations made in the letter are against Esterhazy, the investigating officer for his faked and corrupt investigation, various generals for religious discrimination and for continuing the cover-up, the handwriting experts who had knowingly made false statements against Dreyfus, the War Office and the press for misleading the public and the secret court martials for willfully acquitting a guilty man.  The handwriting experts even contrived an argument that the lack of similarity between the handwriting in the document that formed the basis of the case and Dreyfus’s own was proof of his guilt.

Given the fairly common anti-Jewish sentiment and the fact that the accused was spying on behalf of the Germans [remember that the Germans had recently invaded France and annexed Alsace], the case had caused great excitement and concern.  Zola’s letter served to pave the way for Dreyfus’s exoneration but caused widespread anger and rioting.  In Algeria, where there was a slightly different but still very strong anti-semitism, effigies of Zola and Dreyfus were burned and there was widespread rioting and looting of Jewish shops and businesses.  At least two Jews were killed during the riots, which the Police chose not to intervene in.

Zola was accused and sentenced for libel shortly after the article was published, as he had welcomed in the original article and fled to London, where he lived in Upper Norwood until 1899.

I’ve said it before but I’m going to say it again.  Britain was once a safe haven for those accused of political crimes and many of Europe’s anarchists and socialists sought sanctuary there.  Not any more. Shame on you Britain.

Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899 despite being having found guilty at the retrial and had to appeal again in 1906 to remove the guilty verdict from his records.

Zola died in 1902 from carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment on the Rue de Bruxelles in Paris’s 9th arrondisment.  It has been suggested that the flue to his stove was blocked on purpose by a builder working on an an adjoining building angry at Zola and Dreyfus and a deathbed confession from 1927 for the crime was published in the 1950s.  Of course it is no longer possible to know what really happened.

In 1908 Zola’s remains were moved from the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris to the Panthéon.  During the procession and ceremony there were protests from nationalists and Dreyfus, attending with his wife and mistress, was shot and slightly wounded.

Dreyfus went on to serve in the First World War and was on the front line at Verdun and Chemin des Dames. He eventually received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur.  He died in 1935.


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