January 13, 1898: ”J’accuse” is published.
Émile Zola’s letter denouncing the French government for its anti-Semitism was directed at the president of France, Félix Faure, and it was published on the front page of future Prime Minster Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore for all of France to read. By this time, Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French artillery officer who had been publicly stripped of his rank after being found guilty of treason, had spent three years on the penal colony on Devil’s Island. In that period of time, new evidence linking an entirely different figure to whatever acts Dreyfus had been charged with was exposed, kicking off a debate over anti-Semitism that split the country.
Zola’s letter was one important part of that debate; it began with this line:
Would you allow me, in my gratitude for the benevolent reception that you gave me one day, to draw the attention of your rightful glory and to tell you that your star, so happy until now, is threatened by the most shameful and most ineffaceable of blemishes?
Zola went on to describe what he called a “stain on [France]’s cheek” - the faulty case made against Alfred Dreyfus that led to his unjust conviction, the anti-Semitism of the French government, and the acquittal of the actual perpetrator of treason, whose guilt had been covered up. He made his arguments so strongly that the government would have to sue him for libel, which he knew full well; by being brought to trial, Zola would in turn force the government to reveal their weak case against Dreyfus and new evidence that might work in his favor. Zola was convicted of treason in February of 1898 but fled to England in order to escape jail time, confident in his own statement that “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.” The truth marched on, and in 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated, and he was even awarded the Légion d’honneur. As far as Zola’s involvement was concerned, Dreyfus’ triumph was a triumph for the modern intellectual and his or her new influence on society.