The Passion of Emile Zola

Following text by Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law.

The article, by Emile Zola, the great French novelist, appeared in a Paris literary newspaper, L'Aurore (The Dawn) on Thursday, Jan. 13, 1898, "an essential date in the history of journalism," according to historian Jean-Denis Bredin. Written in the form of an open letter to the President of France, the 4,000 word article, entitled J'Accuse! (I Accuse!), rightly has been judged a "masterpiece" of polemics and a literary achievement "of imperishable beauty." No other newspaper article has ever provoked such public debate and controversy or had such an impact on law, justice, and society.
The appearance of Zola's article was the greatest day of the Dreyfus Affair, which tormented France for twelve years. The Affair, "one of the great commotions of history," in the words of historian Barbara W. Tuchman, arose out of the 1894 arrest and conviction for treason of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army. Dreyfus, who was completely innocent, received an unfair trial at his court martial; the prosecution's case had no substance, and the conviction was based on false, supposedly incriminating documents, not introduced into evidence or disclosed to Dreyfus, which were secretly delivered to the trial judges after they had retired to consider their verdict. Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and expelled from the army. He was incarcerated off the coast of South America on Devil's Island from 1895 until 1899.

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) in military uniform

Emile Zola, photograph by Nadar, 1910

French newspaper cartoon of Zola

Illustration of Dreyfus being publicly humiliated by the military.
His sword was broken and his military regalia torn from his uniform.

Anti-semitic cartoon of Dreyfus as a hydra-like creature, labeling him both a horror and a traitor

The ruins of the prison complex on Devil's Island in French Guiana

Although the film "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937) is highly romanticized, it is never-the-less an excellent introduction to the Dreyfus Affair and to the life and work of Emile Zola. The movie won best picture at the 1938 academy awards and Joseph Schildkraut won a best-supporting actor Oscar for his heart-rending performance as the maligned and long-suffering Alfred Dreyfus.

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