Research and analyze : Emile Zola Accuses the French Government of Framing Alfred Dreyfus
Émile Zola Accuses the French Government of Framing Alfred Dreyfus
The great realist novelist Émile Zola was a lifelong republican. Along with the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Zola was deeply distressed by the case of the Alsatian Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, who was court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison—on scanty and suspicious evidence—of selling French state secrets to the Germans in 1894. The accusations were clearly guided by anti-Semitic sentiments, which were whipped up by the right-wing press, and especially by Eduoard Drumont, the publisher of the journal La libre parole (The Free Word) and author of La France juivre (Jewish France; 1886). In 1896, new evidence implicated Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a major in the French army and a member of the French branch of the powerful Hungarian noble house. But the courts ignored the evidence, declared Esterhazy innocent, and reconfirmed Dreyfus’s guilt. It was this verdict that enraged Zola and other republicans. In January 1898, Zola wrote the following blistering open letter to the president of the French Republic, entitled ‘J’accuse’(“I accuse you!”), in which he denounced France’s military and justice systems, as well as the Catholic Church, for condemning an innocent man. In the end, Dreyfus was given a new trial, and found innocent. He served his country in the First World War, and was awarded the Legion of Honor medal in 1918. Esterhazy escaped to Belgium and then England, where he (almost certainly the guilty party) died in 1923.
Source: Emile Zola, “Letter to M. Felix Faure, President of the Republic (J’accuse)” in The Dreyfuss Affiar: J’accuse and Other Writings, ed. Alain Pages, trans. Eleanor Levieux (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 43–53. Copyright © 1996 by Yale University. English language translation © by Eleanor Levieux 1996. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.
Monsieur le President,
Will you all me, out of my gratitude for the gracious manner in which you once granted me an audience, to express my concern for your well-deserved glory? Will you allow me to tell you that although your star has been in the ascendant hitherto, it is now in danger of being dimmed by the most shameful and indelible of stains? […]
What a blot on your name (I was about to say, on your reign) this abominable Dreyfus Affair is! A court martial, acting on your orders, has just dared to acquit such a man as Esterhazy. Truth itself and justice itself have been slapped in the face. And now it is too late, France’s cheek has been sullied by that supreme insult, and History will record that it was during your presidency that such a crime against society was committed? […]
First of all, the truth about the trial and the verdict against Dreyfus.
One wicked man had led it all, done it all: Lt-Col [Armand-Mercier] du Paty de Clam. At the time he was only a Major. He is the entire Dreyfus Affair….It was his idea to dictate the bordereau to Dreyfus; it was his idea to examine it in a room entirely lined with mirrors; it was du Paty de Clam, Major Forzinetti tells us, who went out with a dark lantern intending to slip into the cell where the accused man was sleeping and flash the light on his face all of a sudden so that he would be taken by surprise and blurt out a confession!…
For some time already, the bordereau had been in the possession of Colonel Sandherr, head of the Intelligence Bureau, who has since died of total paralysis. There were ‘leaks’, papers disappeared, just as papers continue to disappear today; and efforts were being made to find out who had written the bordereau when a conviction slowly grew up that that person could only be an officer from the General Staff, and an artillery officer at that. This was a glaring double error, which shows how superficially the bordereau had been examined, since a close and rational scrutiny of it proves that it could only have been written by an infantry officer….
It was du Paty de Clam who invented Dreyfus. The Affair became his affair. He was sure that he could confound the traitor and wring a complete confession from him. Of course, there is the War Minister, General Mercier, whose intelligence seems to be on a mediocre level; and of course there is the Chief of the General Staff, General de Boisdeffre, who appears to have been swayed by his intense clericalism….
Ah, for anyone who knows the true details of the first affair, what a nightmare it is! Major du Paty de Clam arrests Dreyfus and has him placed in solitary confinement. He rushes to the home of Madame Dreyfus and terrifies her, saying that if she speaks up, her husband is lost…
But now, here is Dreyfus summoned before the court martial. The most utter secrecy is demanded. They could not have imposed stricter silence and been more rigorous and mysterious if a traitor had actually opened our borders to the enemy and led the German Emperor straight to Notre Dame. … No punishment can be too severe; the nation will applaud the traitor’s public humiliation; the nation is adamant: the guilty man shall remain on the remote rock where infamy has placed him and he shall be devoured by remorse. But then, those unspeakable accusations, those dangerous accusations that might inflame all of Europe and had to be so carefully concealed behind the closed doors of secret session—are they true? No, they are not! …One need only examine the formal indictment that was read before the court martial.
How hollow that indictment is! Is it possible a man has been found guilty on the strength of it? Such iniquity is staggering. I challenge decent people to read it: their hearts will leap with indignation and rebellion when they think of the disproportionate price Dreyfus is paying so far away on Devil’s Island. So Dreyfus speaks several languages, does he? This is a crime. Not one compromising paper was found in his home? A crime. He occasionally pays a visit to the region he fails from? A crime. . .
So all that was left was the bordereau, on which the experts had not agreed. They say that in the council chambers, the judges were naturally leaning towards acquittal. And if that is the case then you can understand why, on the General Staff, they are so desperately insistent today on proclaiming, in order to justify the judgement [sic], that there was a damning but secret document; they cannot reveal it but it makes everything legitimate and we must bow before it, as before an invisible and unknowable God! I deny the existence of any such document, I deny it with all my strength! […]
…The preconceived idea that they brought with them to the judges’ bench of course as follows: ‘Dreyfus was sentenced for treason by a court martial, therefore he is guilty; and we, as a court martial, cannot find him innocent’…
They reached an iniquitous verdict which will forever weigh heavy on all our future courts martial and forever make their future decisions suspect…they talk to us about the honour of the army; they want us to love the army, respect the army….the army that is involved here is not the dignified army that our need for justice calls out for. What we are faced with here is the sabre, the master that may be imposed on us tomorrow. Should we kiss the hilt of that sabre, that god, with pious devotion? No, we should not! […]
.The war office employed every means imaginable—campaigns in the press, statements and innuendoes, every type of influence—to cover Esterhazy, in order to convict Dreyfus a second time. The republican government should take a broom to that nest of Jesuits (General Billot calls them that himself) and make a clean sweep! […]
It is a crime to have accused individuals of rending France apart when all those individuals ask for is a generous nation at the head of the procession of free, just nations—and all the while the people who committed that crime were hatching an insolent plot to make the entire world swallow a fabrication. It is a crime to lead public opinion astray, to manipulate it for a death-dealing purpose and pervert it to the point of delirium. It is a crime to poison the minds of the humble, ordinary people, to whip reactionary and intolerant passions into a frenzy while sheltering behind the odious bastion of anti-Semitism. France, the great and liberal cradle of the rights of man, will die of anti-Semitism if it is not cured of it. It is a crime to play on patriotism to further the aims of hatred. And it is a crime to worship the sabre as a modern god when all of human science is labouring to hasten the triumph of truth and justice. […]
But this letter has been a long one, M. le President, and it is time to bring it to a close.
I accuse Lt-Col du Paty de Clam of having been the diabolical agent of a miscarriage of justice (though unwittingly, I am willing to believe) and then having defended his evil deed for the past three years through the most preposterous and most blameworthy machinations.
I accuse General Mercier of having been an accomplice….to one of the most iniquitous acts of this century.
I accuse Generals de Boisdeffre and Gonse of having been accomplices to this same crime, one out of intense clerical conviction, no doubt, and the other perhaps because of the espirit de corps which makes the War Office the Holy of Holies and hence unattackable. […]
I accuse the handwriting experts…of having submitted fraudulent and deceitful reports—unless a medical examination concludes that their eyesight and their judgement were impaired.
I accuse the War Office of having conducted an abominable campaign in the press…in order to cover up its misdeeds and lead public opinion astray.
Finally, I accuse the first court martial of having violated the law by sentencing a defendant on the basis of a document which remained secret, and I accuse the second court martial of having covered up that illegal actions, on orders, by having, in its own turn, committed the judicial crime of knowingly acquitting a guilty man.
In making these accusations, I am fully aware that my action comes under Articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29 July 1881 on the press, which makes libel a punishable offence. I deliberately expose myself to that law. […]
I have but one goal: that light be shed, in the name of mankind which has suffered so much and has the right to happiness. My ardent protest is merely a cry from my very soul. Let them dare to summon me before a court of law! Let the inquiry be held in broad daylight!
I am waiting.
M. le President, I beg you to accept the assurance of my most profound respect.