J’Accuse: Zola and Dreyfus


Contemporary Cartoon: Down with Zola!

The story of the trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus on flimsy and “secret” evidence is seen as a demonstration of anti-Semitism in late 19th century France. Certainly Theodor Herzl, who covered the trial for his Viennese newspaper, saw it that way. And if attitudes were so bad in enlightened France, how much worse in the rest of Europe! So modern Zionism was born, with its call for a nation for the Jews.

The last part of Matthew Josephson’s biography of Emile Zola, Zola and His Time, is devoted to the Dreyfus Affair and the important part Zola played in it. Zola at first wrote articles about the affair and then, finding no satisfactory response, published J’Accuse, opening himself up to a libel suit, a conviction, fines and temporary exile to England. It is disappointing that Josephson speaks so little of Zola’s motivation. Zola was not Jewish and, while he undoubtedly objected to the active prejudices which singled Dreyfus out for prosecution in the first place, I believe that he was stirred by something more fundamental to his own nature, his own inner core.

As they said of Watergate 75 years later, it wasn’t the original crime that was so bad, it was the cover up. Again and again, The French Army had overwhelming evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence and most came to accept it. They had opportunities to correct the error. Again and again they turned away from those opportunities and connived in exonerating the real spy.  The whistle blower within the Army who uncovered the facts was himself persecuted.

 They brought him [Picquart] up quickly. He should have realized that the reopening of the Dreyfus Affair was “not desired;” that the sacrifice of this man, innocent or culpable, was “deemed necessary” for the honor of the Army, The Secret Service Department, and the General Staff, all glorified in the triumphant judgment of 1894.

Zola’s fate was collateral damage, so far as they were concerned. I think it was the thorough dishonesty of the Affair and its coverup that most outraged Zola. As he says in J’Accuse,

 Dreyfus, it is shown, knows several languages: crime; he works hard: crime; no compromising papers are found in his home: crime; he goes occasionally to the country of his origin: crime; he endeavors to learn everything: crime; he is not easily worried: crime; he is worried: crime.

During World War II when the west coast Japanese were rounded up and interned on “suspicion” of espionage and sabotage, it was pointed out that there was no evidence that anyone had done any act of the sort. Ah, we were told: That shows how clever they are, fooling us all by their good behavior.

When I read Zola’s novels, I meet a writer who tells the truth as he sees it. He may dramatize, he may simplify, but he does not deceive or mislead. Josephson reports that Zola said at his trial,

“All seems to be against me, the two Chambers, the civil powers, the military powers, the great newspapers, the public opinion which they have poisoned. And I have nothing for me but the Idea, the Ideal of truth and justice…. Someday France will thank me for having helped to save her honor.”


Contemporary cartoon: My Prophecy is Borne Out. Right has Finally Triumphed.

15 comments on “J’Accuse: Zola and Dreyfus

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Those cartoons are great!


  2. bennythomas says:

    This systematic cover up gave the Army some respite but the rot had gone far into it evidence of which we see the debacle of Paris capitulating in six weeks when the Nazis marched in. The Army was living in le gloire that Napoleon bequeathed while Bismarck was setting in motion how to teach France a needful lesson. It happened in 1870. Anti-semiticism was a symptom of the medieval mindset sneaking in through 1789 and spreading into popular press backed by French Right, Church and left. Zola as a writer with his social conscience intact had to speak up.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      HI Benny, I’ve just been reading Public Enemies by Houellebecq and Levy, in which Houellebecq has an interesting take on the capitulation: he says that it was a consequence of the French polis losing faith in what their government told them after the debacle of WW1.
      “A government can ask much of its citizens, of its subjects; but there comes a moment when it asks too much; and then it’s over. In going beyond the acceptable in that appalling, unjustified war, France lost all right to the love and respect of its citizens; it brought discredit on itself. And such discredit is, I repeat, permanent.
      Houellebecq says that this discredit explains the nihilism of Surrealism and Dadaism, the “ease” with which working-class people believed that the USSR was a paradise for workers, and “the lack of enthusiasm with which the French fought in 1940”. He thinks that the French people’s attitude was “Here we go again with the Huns” rather than “The struggle against Nazism has started”. (p. 113-4)
      He may have a point – though Britain and its Dominions could have felt the same – but I don’t think such cynicism explains the Vichy government deporting its Jews without demur.
      Of course, it was Germany that needed a Zola most in that period… and it never had one.


  3. E. A. Vizetelly writes of Zola’s ‘exile’ from France in order to avoid arrest. Zola spoke little or no English and they ended up hiding him away under the care of one of Vizetelly’s daughters who had excellent French. The sad event made for a charming book: With Zola in England available at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10670


  4. SilverSeason says:

    Six years before J’Accuse, Zola wrote Le Debacle about the French defeat at Sedan, ending the Franco Prussian War and the reign of Napoleon III. Everything in that novel demonstrates his contempt for and distrust of the military command.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      So much to read by this brilliant author! I can’t understand why my education neglected to introduce me to him.
      My parents had a nice folio edition of Nana, but LOL as a teenager I wasn’t allowed to read it…


      • And you didn’t sneak it, lol? I snuck a few books off mom and dad’s shelf in my day. A number of years ago I was reading one of Colette’s books and she told how her parents let her read and discuss anything in the house. I forget whether it was because they felt it worse to make a big deal of it and hence become forbidden fruit or what their reasoning was.


        • Lisa Hill says:

          There were so many other books to read that (as I remember it) I didn’t really react when my mother said ‘not yet’ I just read something else and forgot about it.
          And you know, I’ve got that same Folio edition myself now, which I bought second-hand, and when I look at the rather saucy near-naked ladies in the illustrations, I’m not really surprised that my mother didn’t want me reading it when I was only thirteen!


  5. bennythomas says:

    There is an excellent book by William Manchester who was reporting from Paris at the time of the debacle. He wrote the rot set in the French society right through in his The Rise and Fall of the Third Republic. It is authoritative with plenty of quotes from official and personal diaries. An interesting read.


    • Lisa Hill says:

      Yes, it’s so interesting – and worth exploring from a philosophical rather than historical PoV – to look at the reasons why some wars are supported and others are not. Australians went enthusiastically to WW1 although they objected to conscription; there wasn’t much argument about WW2 though some took their time to sign up; they voted for successive governments that sent conscripts to Vietnam from the middle 50s to 1972; but in a survey at the time 90% of Australians apparently disapproved of sending our forces to Iraq but the government sent them anyway – and was voted back in.
      I find these shifts in public opinion interesting, and I wonder how much what’s in the media is an influence, and how much derives from deeply held confidence in their leaders or (see Houellebecq) distrust.


      • bennythomas says:

        Referring to Houellebecq people lose faith in governments when their immediate needs are not met. Statesmen see in terms of long range and politicians short term goals. There no statesmen worth holding as an example that could ensure a fair share of prosperity for all classes. The Third Republic run by politicians came and went too fast, and their public quarrels, duels and private cupidity were all splashed in the many newspapers. Each paper, Le Figaro, and the like had their supporters who whipped up the heat relentlessly to further their own agenda. People as a result became disenchanted with all the evils of their governance that we find even now. Money, power and privileges staying within the top thirty families as in the case of Third Republic was not what French Revolution was all about People want wars that bring results and in France it didn’t happen. Now War in Iraq showed the allies the futility of pulling chestnuts out of fire for someone else. Besides Big Brother is a creature of the Military-Industrial-Corporate Complex that has no qualms of throwing people and their small dreams into the wind for their big win.


  6. SilverSeason says:

    Regarding Nana, it is not my favorite. My problem is not moral. If anything it is a cautionary tale: Beauty and money don’t buy happiness. I thought it wasn’t fair that he killed Nana off. She wasn’t a bad sort, shallow perhaps but not vicious. Why not let her subside gracefully into a serene old age!


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