Editor's Pick

31 December, 2022

ON 13 JANUARY 1898, the newspaper L’Aurore published an open letter by the novelist Émile Zola to the French president, Félix Faure. Titled “J’accuse…!”—I accuse—the article deplored the antisemitism that had led to the artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus being convicted of treason, three years earlier. Zola called the conviction a “horrid miscarriage of justice” that would “leave a stain” on Faure’s presidency. He urged Faure to fulfil his “duty as a man” by intervening in the case.

Dreyfus was arrested in October 1894, soon after the Deuxième Bureau, France’s external military intelligence agency, received a letter found in the German embassy at Paris. Retrieved from a dustbin in the office of the embassy’s military attaché, the letter mentioned a number of confidential documents that the author was sending the Germans. Operating on the erroneous assumption that the sender would have been an artillery officer who had recently been assigned to the staff office, investigators settled on Dreyfus, a Jewish man from Alsace—which had been annexed by Germany—as their prime suspect. There was little evidence against him, other than a vague resemblance between his handwriting and that used in the letter.

While the court martial that December was conducted in secret, Dreyfus’s guilt was assumed by the right-wing press, who used the case as justification for their past denunciations of France’s Jewish population. In the years following his conviction, as it became clear that the actual culprit was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, several prominent intellectuals took up Dreyfus’s cause. Zola’s letter, published two days after Esterhazy was acquitted, was followed by antisemitic riots throughout France, and he was convicted of libel. The government appealed to the Supreme Court for a supplementary investigation. Dreyfus was tried again, at Rennes, and convicted once more, but the government pardoned him. In 1906, he was exonerated and reinstated in the army.