Friday, February 27, 2009


French novelist Émile Zola was found guilty of libel for writing "J'accuse," in an open letter to the French government. It accused the government and the military court of deliberately mishandling the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was wrongly accused of giving intelligence information to Germany. People were eager to convict a Jewish man, and Dreyfus was given a life sentence and sent into solitary confinement on Devil's Island. Soon after, the government found conclusive evidence that another man, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was actually guilty of the crime. But to save face, the military and the government produced false evidence to acquit Esterhazy and confirm Dreyfus' guilt.

Émile Zola was a prolific novelist and a well-respected public intellectual. Two days after Esterhazy was acquitted, his 4,000-word letter took up the entire front page of the French newspaper L'Aurore, with its one-word title, "J'accuse!" ("I accuse!"). Zola took apart the case, proved Dreyfus' innocence and Esterhazy's guilt, exposed the government cover-up, and directly accused government and military figures of anti-Semitism and abusing the justice system.

Zola was well-known outside of France, and "J'accuse" brought the Dreyfus case to the attention of the international community. After reading it, most believed that Dreyfus was innocent. Zola was arrested for libel, and his trial got a lot of media coverage. In the courtroom, people screamed and got in brawls, and mobs tried to attack Zola as he left each day. He was convicted on this day in 1898 and ordered to spend a year in jail. He escaped to England, where he lived in exile. But in less than two years, a new court reversed Dreyfus' sentence and dropped the libel charge against Zola. Both men returned to France, and in 1906, Dreyfus was reinstated in the army.

via Writer's Almanac

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