1898: Emile Zola Is Convicted of Libel for Defending Dreyfus

No friend of Jews, Emile Zola was shocked into examining anti-Semitism by the farce of Dreyfus' conviction, but would die before seeing the Jewish officer exonerated.

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Emile Zola, early in his career - Etienne Carjat Museum of Photographic Arts
Emile Zola, no admirer of Jews, was appalled by what he learned of the framing of Dreyfus the Jew.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On February 23, 1898, Emile Zola was convicted of libel in a Parisian court, in connection with his dramatic article, headlined “J’accuse,” that appeared the preceding January 13 in the daily paper L’Aurore.

“J’accuse” was the 4,000-word open letter to the president of France, written in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain who had been convicted in December 1894 of espionage on behalf of Germany, and sentenced to life imprisonment on a remote island in the South Atlantic.

The Dreyfus Affair – and Zola’s decision to become involved in it – was about more than the guilt or innocence of a single individual. Dreyfus had been framed, and even after that fact became clear to everyone involved, members of the senior military and political establishment persisted in a conspiracy to cover that up.  In so doing, they were destroying the life of a fellow officer, whose only  crime was being a Jew. But the affair also revealed and deepened a divide in France, in which “liberty, equality, and fraternity” – the values of the French Revolution – were pitted against nationalism, militarism and xenophobia, in particular a hatred of the country’s emancipated Jewish minority.

1800 years of mindless persecution

Emile Zola (1840-1902) was not Jewish, and by his own description, had hardly been an admirer of the Jewish people for most of his life. But the prosecution of Dreyfus and the powerful and ugly wave of anti-Jewish sentiment it elicited shocked him.

In “A Plea for the Jews,” published in Le Figaro in May 1896, Zola examined the hatred felt by so many French for the Jews. He noted the stereotypes associated with them -- clannishness, craftiness, and an obsessive love for money – but argued that even if that description was accurate vis-à-vis many Jews, it was the result “of eighteen hundred years of our mindless persecution.” The Jews, he wrote, “have been beaten, insulted, and laden with injustice and violence [while their non-Jewish neighbors] have contemptuously abandoned the field of commerce to them and bestowed on them the label of usurers and traffickers” (translation by Jack Dixon).

By the time of ‘J’accuse,” Zola had already published some half-dozen articles or interviews responding directly or indirectly to the Dreyfus case. Now, however, he took on the case in detail – and did so with the goal of being prosecuted for libel, as he saw a trial as an opportunity to force the authorities to disclose the evidence they had refused to reveal during Dreyfus’ original court martial.

Alfred DreyfusCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Aurore article leveled many charges at the army, Zola, together with L’Aurore’s business manager, Alexandre Perrenx, was accused of libel on one point only – his accusation that the military tribunal that had sat in judgment of Ferdinand Esterhazy, the real spy, had acquitted him despite knowing he was guilty.

The trial begins

Zola’s trial began on February 7, 1898, and he did indeed put up a strong defense. Furthermore, in his summary remarks, Zola declared that the case went far beyond the guilt or innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. “There is,” he said, “only one issue: Is France still the France of the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the France which gave the world liberty, and was supposed to give it justice?”

Not surprisingly, though, Zola was found guilty, and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, plus a hefty fine of 3000 francs. And when the conviction was set aside, on technical grounds, and the case was retried, that July, he and Perrenx were again convicted.

That night, however, Zola fled France for London, where he remained until June 1899, by which time it was understood that Dreyfus was going to get a retrial – in very large part thanks to his efforts – and that he himself would receive an official pardon.

It was not until 1906, however, that Dreyfus was fully exonerated and restored to his rank in the army. By then, Zola had been dead for four years, having been asphyxiated by coal fumes in his own home, an “accident” that many suspected had been caused by people still angry at him for his defense of Dreyfus the Jew.

"J'accuse ...!", Front page of the newspaper Aurora, published on 13 January 1898, featuring the letter from Emile Zola to the President of the Republic, Felix Faure about the Dreyfus Case. Credit: Wikimedia Commons