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.”