Zola and the Dreyfus affair

Émile Zola was a successful writer when the Dreyfus Affair broke out. The writer, who had never been politically active, nevertheless took a stand in defense of the unjustly condemned Captain. The affair, which manifested the anti-Semitism that characterized part of the political and journalistic class, tore the Republic apart.  With his open letter "J'accuse", a veritable indictment of Dreyfus's accusers, Émile Zola put his fame at the service of justice. The Dreyfus affair became the Zola affair.




From the Dreyfus affair to the Zola Affair : the role of the opinion press

"I accuse Lieutenant-Colonel du Paty de Clam of having been the diabolical architect of the miscarriage of justice. I accuse General Mercier of having been complicit, at least through weakness of mind, in one of the greatest iniquities of the century. I accuse...".

Émile Zola wrote this open letter to the President of the Republic, Félix Faure, to tell all he knew about the Dreyfus affair, and to denounce the guilty parties who had sent an innocent man to prison.

How did it come to this? In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, accused of spying for Germany, was tried behind closed doors, condemned to degradation and relegation to the penal colony of Cayenne, despite shouting his innocence.

Two years later, the real culprit was unmasked: another officer, Major Esterhazy. But the anti-Semitic hatred of the general staff and the solidarity of the military caste covered up for Esterhazy. Zola can't stand him.

January 13, 1898 : I accuse...

Another witness: "What does Zola want? He wants to be judged, to be judged for defamation, because then there'll be a real trial. Since the Dreyfus trial was a shrouded trial, since the Esterhazy trial was a shrouded trial, this time there will be a real trial where all the witnesses can be called and Dreyfus's innocence proven. Only, he will bear the consequences".

In the freezing dawn of Thursday January 13, 1898, three hundred thousand copies of L'Aurore were auctioned off, with the six-column front page headline: "J'accuse, par Émile Zola" ("I accuse, by Émile Zola"). A month later, as he had wished, Zola was tried for libel in the Assize Court, but two hundred witnesses who had anything to do with the Dreyfus affair were heard: the truth was finally out, even though the writer had been convicted.

Witness: "He wrote 'J'accuse' because he believed that a further act had to be carried out, that a step had to be taken, and that he had the right to do so, in the name of his literary conscience, in the name of his awareness of being, at the time, the greatest writer in French literature".

The press took on the role it would have in the 20th century: it shaped opinion. For or against Zola, it was liberal or anti-Semitic. It showed the divided France against which Zola was fighting. But above all, "J'accuse" marks the birth of a new attitude: the commitment of intellectuals.

Witness: "Collective commitment was born out of 'J'accuse', a collective commitment that was to be perpetuated at the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th century, with all the manifestos signed by all the intellectuals in the service of truth and justice. But what is above all remarkable is that this was born out of a solitary commitment - Zola's commitment, the commitment of a solitary writer, who later wrote in very moving terms: "Now that I've fulfilled my task, I'm going back to my books.

But he never completed his last book, "La vérité": he died on September 29, 1902.

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