On this day: Emile Zola on trial

February 7 1898: The J’Accuse author faces the courts

By Jennifer Lipman, February 7, 2011

When Zola’s J’Accuse letter was published on the front page of a French newspaper in January 1898 it was a remarkable act of bravery on its author’s part.

Written in protest at the French government’s treatment of Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, Zola was one of a group of intellectuals and artists who sought to secure his freedom.

Dreyfus was later exonerated, certainly in thanks to Zola’s audacious move. But Zola himself bore the consequences of his brave statement, which pointed out judicial errors and the lack of evidence for the charges against Dreyfus.

In the letter, Zola wrote: “The evidence of Dreyfus's character, his affluence, the lack of motive and his continued affirmation of innocence combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the 'dirty Jew' obsession that is the scourge of our time."

Prosecuted for libel, Zola was found guilty a fortnight later but fled to England to avoid being put in prison.

He returned only when the French government collapsed, but continued to publicly defend Dreyfus. His term, J’Accuse, has become a byword for unjust or unwarranted actions.

What the JC said: Then there had arisen Zola. And here was a foe for the Anti-Semites to fear. They became furious at the thought that their victim might, after all, escape them. Their rage was fearful to behold, no lie was too base, no insinuation too vile for them, But they might have saved themselves the perturbation. They were flattering their army, to think that the army would allow the truth to prevail. Zola was found guilty of an attempt to obtain justice – which was treason.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 10:38am, February 7 2011