On this day in 1898 Emile Zola published his "J'Accuse" letter on the Dreyfus Affair in the French newspaper L'Aurore. In his letter Zola listed eight politicians and military personnel (including the President of the Republic) whom he held responsible for the scapegoat, anti-Semitic conviction of Captain Dreyfus for treason three years earlier. Before the morning was out over 300,000 copies of the newspaper had been sold -- ten times the usual -- not a few to those so outraged at Zola's charges that they made bonfires. The letter set off a chain of events that would force Zola to flee to England to avoid his own prison term for defamation, but also force authorities to return Dreyfus from Devil's Island for retrial and, ultimately, exoneration. By the time of his death four years later -- caused by a blocked-chimney fire set, some still say, by his "Anti-Dreyfusard" enemies -- Zola was so revered that 50,000 joined his funeral procession, and heard Anatole France eulogize him as "a moment in the human conscience."
When it was first published, many regarded the letter as a slap at France and all Frenchmen, and more grandstanding and muckraking from a journalist-novelist who had become rich and famous through such gestures. Zola was certainly a lifelong crusader -- newspaper articles defending the new Expressionist painting, books on "a nation of workers" reduced to poverty, alcoholism and prostitution by the power elite -- but he had in fact tried to rouse public support for Dreyfus less dramatically. A year and a half earlier his "Plea for the Jews" had registered his "growing surprise and disgust" with what he saw as a trend. In the weeks prior to the letter, he had written a series of newspaper articles on Dreyfus specifically. When the last of these was canceled by the newspaper as too provocative, and when both the stonewalling and the public indifference continued, Zola published two pamphlets on the topic at his own expense. "Letter to Youth" was a hope that at least the students of the day would respond to a call for charity and a fair hearing:
"Can young people be anti-Semites?... Can it be that their fresh new brains and souls have already been deranged by that idiotic poison?... Is this the way to take possession of the City of our dreams, the City of equality and fraternity?... You are the workmen of the future. You will lay the foundations of the next century which, we firmly believe, will resolve the problems of fairness and truth that this waning century raises."
The second, "Letter to France," went further, forecasting doom to any nation that found comfort in the solidarity of scapegoat-politics:
France, if you're not careful, you're heading straight for dictatorship. Today it's Jews who are being persecuted, tomorrow it will be Protestants; already the campaign is beginning. The Republic is overrun by reactionaries of every stripe. . . . France must come to her senses, restore justice and self-respect, put an end to the mockery of justice in the military courts, stop their secret sessions and the withholding of important documents.
Feeling that these appeals had fallen on deaf ears, and not having the time or temperament for alternatives, Zola decided to name names. He missed the Major whose lies and forgeries were at the center of the scandal, and it would take years of cover-ups, trials, suicides and riots to reveal all, but Zola's list turned out to be remarkably accurate.