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Picture of Alfred Dreyfus

February 7, 1898
Emile Zola   (1840 - 1902)
Emile Zola, Alfred Dreyfus & France
by Steve King

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Alfred Dreyfus was the only prisoner on Devil's Island -- apart from the French soldiers, the only inhabitant. His diary documents the four and a half years of isolation; the inexplicable double-manacles and seven-foot fence; the constant presence of mute guards, which made his life a "profound, eternal and tortuous silence...never speaking to a single person, never hearing a human voice... [not] one sympathetic word, one friendly look."

Dreyfus was allowed a small library, although the novels of Emile Zola were not included in it. Nor would Dreyfus discover until afterwards that it was Zola's voice which spoke out most passionately and daringly on his behalf, compelling the events which would eventually return him to France and clear him of treason.

Zola did not know Dreyfus. His outspokenness was principled, the culmination of a lifetime of protest. In his twenties and thirties, Zola supported himself, and promoted his reforms, through journalism. His attacks on the right-wing politics of the new Republic brought firings and censure and decades of police surveillance upon him. His support for the new painting of his friends Cezanne and Monet was jeered, as was his support and practice of the new "naturalism" in writing. The old-guard Romantics, like the old-guard Royalists, preferred the 'cape and sword' world of Hugo and Dumas.

In 1894, when Dreyfus became scapegoat of an anti-Semitic military establishment, Zola was long past his career as a protest journalist. His novels continued to document social problems, and to draw attack from the Right, but he was a best-selling author. He and the other members of the "hissed authors' club" could now hold their monthly dinners in good restaurants, and Zola could return from them to his country retreat.

Still, when the facts of the Dreyfus case were presented to him, Zola did not hesitate to risk this popularity and comfort. His first response was a series of articles in Le Figaro calling for justice. When the editor of the paper lost his courage for these attacks, Zola published two militant pamphlets, the first entitled "Letter to Youth" and the second, "Letter to France." When these fell short, Zola decided to name names: on January 13, 1898, in a newspaper article entitled J'Accuse, he listed eight men, from the President of the Republic on down, whom he held responsible for the dishonour and injustice of Dreyfus's imprisonment.

Image: photograph of the cover of the French newspaper Aurore on the day of Emile Zola's J'Accuse article regarding Alfred Dreyfus
This produced results, but not those Zola intended. A wave of patriotic, anti-Semitic and often violent demonstrations swept France, to cries of "Death to Dreyfus," "Down with Jews," "Down with Zola," and "Long live the Army." When Zola was brought to trial for defamation, the judge orchestrated a series of evasions and illegalities -- at one point exclaiming that "the honour and security of France are more important than justice!" -- and on February 7, 1898, to a cheering courtroom, the jury delivered their verdict of guilty. On top of his fine, Zola was sentenced to the maximum 1-year prison term. When his appeal trial seemed headed in the same direction, he fled to England.

Within six weeks, two key army officers confessed their roles in the Dreyfus Affair, and within a year both Dreyfus and Zola were back in France, but few gave them a hero's welcome. If anything, the battle lines between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards had hardened. During Dreyfus's retrial, his lawyer, who had also been Zola's trial lawyer, was shot; when Dreyfus was again found guilty of high treason, although this time with "extenuating circumstances," there was again partying in the street. Dreyfus was granted a pardon, but this was largely a ploy, as it legally insured that no further court action could be taken by either side.

By 1906, when the full cover-up was exposed and Dreyfus was finally and fully exonerated, Zola had died. While sleeping he had been asphyxiated by fumes from a plugged chimney -- plugged, many maintain, by his political opponents.

Dreyfus was among the 50,000 mourners who followed Zola's glass-enclosed hearse through the streets of Paris, and heard him eulogized by Anatole France as "a moment in the human conscience." Fearing violence, Zola's widow and his own family had urged Dreyfus not to go, but he had secretly, safely and adamantly attended.

Their fears were realized several years later. In 1908 Zola was honoured by reburial in the Pantheon, beside the body of Voltaire. The public ceremonies rekindled simmering passions, and as crowds of Dreyfusards shouting "Long Live Zola!" clashed with anti-Dreyfusards shouting "Spit on Zola!" a gunman got close enough to shoot Dreyfus. He managed to raise his arms to his chest, partially absorbing the bullet, and he made a full recovery. He would live for another twenty years, as would the attacks upon his name, and that of Emile Zola.

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Related authors:  Anatole France, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo
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