On January 13, 1898, the famous French novelist Emile Zola published an article titled J’Accuse (I Accuse) in the newspaper L’Aurore (The Dawn) exposing the anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. J’Accuse was an open letter to the French president Félix Faure and uncovered the injustice and the perjuries involved in the court-martial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus – a French military officer accused of treason. The Dreyfus Affair was a sensational case that rocked the nation exhibiting the deep-rooted prejudices against Jews and Judaism in Europe long before the Nazi Party came up with its anti-Semitic agenda leading up to the Holocaust.
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War drew to a close with the Second French Empire suffering a humiliating defeat to the Germans. Napoleon III was dethroned and the French army stood routed. Through the decade that followed, the shock and the mortification of the defeat resounded across the nation. Suspicions of sabotage and espionage were rife. In fact, the Germans did have information about French deployment in Sedan. This information came from Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry and Major Ferdinand Esterházy – spies in the General Staff of the French military. Henry and Esterházy decided to come up with a diversionary scapegoat to avoid the investigations. Alfred Dreyfus, a 36-year old officer fit their bill perfectly. Apart from being reticent, he was the only Jew to be in a senior position.
Henry and Esterházy set about influencing public opinion and the press by creating a suspicion against Dreyfus. A number of documents including alleged secret correspondences to Dreyfus from the German General Staff were forged in the effort to frame him. Finally, in 1894, the French Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier examined the case. Though unconvinced of the charges against Dreyfus, he was under a lot of pressure to exonerate the army and to pin the Jewish officer. With Mercier’s proclamation of Dreyfus’ guilt, a wave of anti-Semitic fury swept through France. Public opinion had convicted Dreyfus even before the trial began. Mercier soon pronounced that he had unassailable evidence of Dreyfus’ treason.
The public furor took shape of a much publicized trial. Dreyfus maintained his innocence and the evidence against him was scanty. To bolster the case against him, Esterházy and Henry produced what they called a “secret file” – a collection of counterfeit documents proclaiming his treason. Mercier and the French Army approved its submission to the judges. The file was never made available to the defense counsel or to the press for examination. Dreyfus was found guilty on the basis of this file and convicted. In a ceremony of public humiliation, Dreyfus was led through the streets of Paris where the crowds chanted anti-Semitic slogans and abused him. He was stripped off his military ranks and was sent to the penal colony at Devil’s Island in January 1895.
In 1897, evidence against Esterházy and Henry was revealed quite by chance. Furthermore, Esterházy’s former mistress, Madame de Boulancy, published letters by Esterhazy in which he had expressed his extreme hatred of France and the French Army. Esterházy was forced to admit to writing the letters published in Le Figaro. A court martial was ordered. It was, however, a tremendous loss of pride and trust for the French Army to admit any miscarriage of justice and Esterházy was acquitted in what was evidently a cover-up.
Even as the Dreyfus trial came to a close, an eminent French writer and journalist, Emile Zola was assailed by doubts about the “evidence” produced in court. With Esterházy’s acquittal Zola dived into an investigative research about the episode, soon uncovering that Esterházy and Henry were behind it. He also discovered the cover-up that the French Army had meted out. Three years later, on January 13, Zola published, J’Accuse, meaning “I Accuse.” The 4500-word 6-column article exploded across the country as L’Aurore sold 300,000 copies instead of its usual 30,000.
With the publication, the tide started towards an exposure of the real case and garnered much support for Dreyfus. A group of supporters who called themselves the Dreyfusards started to actively work at gaining support, uncovering the falsification of evidences and furthering the cause of justice. Through the next few years, many Dreyfusards faced prosecution and persecution as well.
As anticipated, Zola was accused of libel and a trial was initiated against him by Henry. This trial was sensational as well and the jury was split 7-5 against Zola. Zola was sentenced to prison but he feared that he may not be allowed to live once in prison. Zola fled to England. His words, “Truth is on the march and nothing can stop it” were to soon come true.
Despite Zola’s escape, the Dreyfusards continued their work with much vigor. Evidence against Esterházy and Henry became overwhelming and the entire scheme became apparent to the French public. Henry committed suicide and Esterházy left France to avoid consequences.
In 1899, Dreyfus was brought back for a second trial. He was found guilty again but sentenced to as many years as he had already served, thus freeing him. It was not until later in 1906, almost 12 years after the initial trial that the efforts of Georges Clemenceau and other supporters of Dreyfus that a military commission exonerated Dreyfus. On July 12, 1906 the Supreme Court of France acquitted Dreyfus and pronounced “the end of the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus”. But by that time, Zola had died – a French intellectual hero who stood up for the cause of truth and justice.
By the time the Dreyfus Affair came to an end, it had caused a revolution and a civil war in the country and exposed the deep divides based on anti-Semite lines and had dominated the political scenario of the nation. The Affair was only a shadow of what was to come later with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. With this episode, however, the latent anti-Semite flavors that had hitherto remained unspoken surfaced and did so with a violence capable of pulling apart a nation as strong as France.
You may also like :
January 13 1842 – Dr. William Brydon, Survivor of the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army, Reaches Jalalabad