Tuesday, February 7, 2012


One hundred and fourteen years ago today, on February 7th 1898, Emil Zola was brought to trial on charges of criminal libel. He was convicted a couple of weeks later, and sentenced to a year in jail. Surprised by the sentence Zola escaped to England with little more than the clothes on his back.

Zola was a prolific author whose best known work at the time was a 20 novel set called the Rougon-Macquart series. Each of these novels presented elements of two families who would respond to the moral dilemmas of the industrial revolution in different ways. He referred to his work as an experiment in psychology; the Rougons were his control group while the Macquarts suffered the effects of experimentation with violence, alcohol, and prostitution.

On January 13th 1898 he would write a short essay which would overshadow all his previous work. The essay was published on the front page of the newspaper L’aurore. The letter was called J’accuse’ and detailed elements of a religiously-motivated conspiracy in the French military. It was because of this letter that Zola would stand trial.

The conspiracy ostensibly concerned an artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus who had been convicted in a secret court marshal of giving secrets to the enemy, and who was, on January 5th 1895, publically stripped of his rank and sent to Devil’s Island. Shortly after Alfred’s trip to Devil’s Island Information had surfaced proving Dreyfus’s innocence, and by the time of J’accuse’ years of statement and counterstatement had drawn a line between the church-influenced army and a more secular citizenry.

Dreyfus was Jewish. In 1895 he had already been the focus of anti-Semitic attacks by superior officers throughout his short career. As a cadet his war college examination grades were lowered by the anti-Semitic-motivated scoring by General Bonnefond who felt that “Jews were not desired” in command. When Bonnefond performed the same score adjustment for another Jewish cadet (Lieutenant Pickard) the two were able to amass enough evidence to lodge a formal complaint. The director of the school (General Lebelin de Dionne) acknowledged the injustice, but refused to reverse the damage. Because of this Alfred carried the troublemaker brand before his first command.

Perhaps because of his “Jewish Troublemaker” label Dreyfus was seen as a good target to pin the treasonous espionage on. Perhaps he appeared as too attractive a mark for the framing because the evidence concocted would turn out to be insufficient to convince most individuals unclouded by rabid anti-Semitism. When the construct failed the flying accusations spun off into increasingly threadbare and bizarre statements.

Unable to simply wash their hands of the affair the government collapsed. Dreyfus was offered a pardon in 1899, but retained his guilt.

Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. Opinions and articles were immediately circulated suggesting that he had committed suicide in response to discovering some hinted-at evidence proving that Dreyfus was guilty all along. Decades later a roofer would, on his deathbed, confess to stopping up Zola’s chimney after accepting money for the assassination.

In 1906 Dreyfus would be completely and officially exonerated of his crimes.

In 1908 Zola’s remains were transported to the Pantheon in Paris. Alfred attended the re-internment ceremony. During it a military reporter named Louis Gregori pulled out a revolver and fired two shots at him at point blank range. Alfred survived with a wounded arm. “My object was to protest against the participation of the army in the glorification of Zola and the rehabilitation of Dreyfus. My blow was aimed less at Dreyfus than at Dreyfusism." -- Louis Gregori

In January of 2007 Jacques Chirac unveiled a plaque in the Pantheon which commemorated the anti-Holocaust activities of the many French citizens who together saved three-quarters of the French Jews from extermination during WWII. In a way that plaque serves as a milestone in the retreat from the anti-Semitic France that put Zola on trial.

“Sous la chape de haine et de nuit tombée sur la France dans les années d'occupation, des lumières, par milliers, refusèrent de s'éteindre. Nommés "Juste parmi les Nations" ou restés anonymes, des femmes et des hommes, de toutes origines et de toutes conditions, ont sauvé des juifs des persécutions antisémites et des camps d'extermination. Bravant les risques encourus, ils ont incarné l'honneur de la France, ses valeurs de justice, de tolérance et d'humanité.” – Plaque in the Panteon

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