This Day in World History
January 13, 1898
Zola publishes J’Accuse, exposing Dreyfus affair
On January 13, 1898, the French newspaper L’Aurore (The Dawn) published a sensational open letter addressed to French president Félix Faure. The article—titled J’Accuse (I Accuse) was written by famed novelist Emile Zola, and his charges—perjury, conspiracy, and injustice in the court-martial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus—rocked France and gave renewed vigor to the efforts to clear Dreyfus’s name.
Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted in late 1894 of handing military secrets to Germany—but the Jewish officer had been fingered largely on circumstantial evidence and deep-seated anti-Semitism, and his conviction was based largely on a forged document. Stripped of his military rank, Dreyfus became the focus of national outrage.
Then, in late 1896, new and real evidence pointed to the actual culprit, Commandant Ferdinand Esterhazy. The French army ordered a new court-martial but rather than admitting its mistake and convicting the real spy, acquitted Esterhazy of all charges. This verdict, delivered in January 1898, provoked Zola’s letter of outrage.
Zola laid out the facts in the Dreyfus case in meticulous detail, spicing his presentation with ringing words. “My duty,” he declared, “is to speak out, not to become an accomplice in this travesty.” Later in the letter, he proclaimed “Truth is on the march and nothing can stop it.”
As he suspected would happen, Zola was accused of libel. In yet another unfair trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. The novelist fled to England to escape the sentence. But his words had succeeded in swinging public opinion in Dreyfus’s favor. Dreyfus’s conviction was overturned in 1899. He was retried that same year and once again found guilty, though he was pardoned. Not until 1906 was that conviction finally reversed and his innocence unequivocally declared. By that time, Zola had died. He remains honored, though, for his courageous stand for truth and justice.