On January 13, 1898, Émile Zola blew the lid off the Dreyfus affair with his J’accuse letter. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish French military officer wrongfully tried, convicted, and sentenced to penal servitude for espionage. Zola’s letter, printed on the front page of the newspaper l’Aurore, pointed out the lack of evidence and judicial errors inherent in the trial. He concluded that the only explanation for the conviction was the rampant anti-Semitism present in the French government. Outrage over the Dreyfus conviction led to his re-trial in 1899, the bizarre result of which was his re-conviction and pardon. Dreyfus appealed again in 1906 for annulment of the verdict. This time, not only was the verdict annulled, but he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for his “unparalleled martyrdom.”
Zola’s phrase, J’accuse (jackoose) means “I accuse.” It has become a stock phrase for situations where someone takes on the government or another powerful body on behalf of an underdog. Zola didn’t come off quite as well as Dreyfus eventually did. A month after publishing his letter, Zola was tried and convicted of libel, but he escaped punishment by fleeing to England. He was stripped of his Légion d’Honneur. Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked chimney four years later. There were suggestions that this had been done deliberately. His remains were ultimately placed in the Panthéon, where French heroes are honored.
J’accuse: The Dreyfus Affair and Other Writings (Émile Zola)
- “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” – Emile Zola (jessagill.wordpress.com)
- Remembering J’accuse (capitalisthistory.com)
- Anti-Semitism in France and the Ghost of Emile Combes (commentarymagazine.com)