In the era of social media, it is an almost everyday occurrence to be asked to sign a petition or to “like” a cause. When Emile Zola, the celebrated French novelist, published J’Accuse on January 13, 1898, he could only hope that his essay would gain popularity and stir a response from the masses. He had no idea of the impact it would have on his own life.
J’Accuse was Zola’s reaction to the Dreyfus Affair. Zola was not only certain that the 1895 conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of espionage was a deliberate miscarriage of justice, but that it was primarily motivated by anti-Semitism.
Printed as an open letter on the front page of a liberal French newspaper, Zola accused:
Here then, Mr. President, are the facts which explain how a miscarriage of justice could be made; and the moral evidence, the financial circumstances of Dreyfus, the absence of reason, his continual cry of innocence, completes its demonstration as a victim of the extraordinary imaginations of commander [Armand] du Paty de Clam, of the clerical medium in which it was found, of the hunting for the “dirty Jews,” which dishonors our time.
J’Accuse split public opinion. Dreyfus was given a second court-martial in 1899, but was once again found guilty (on forged evidence). However, shortly thereafter he was pardoned by the President of France.
As J’Accuse was addressed to the President of France, it did not surprise Zola that he was then charged with libel. Sentenced to a year in jail and a 3,000 Franc fine, Zola fled to England. He returned to France when a new government was formed in June 1899. Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning four years later, two years before Dreyfus was fully exonerated.
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