The Dreyfus Case

On February 7, 1898, the writer Emile Zola was summoned to stand trial in the Palais de Justice in Paris. He was being sued for libel, following his "Open Letter to the [French] President of the Republic", published one month earlier in the newspaper L'Aurore, under the catchy title "J'accuse!..." that the owner/editor Georges Clémenceau had coined.

In his article, Zola had openly accused high officials, military staffers and handwriting experts of meddling with the truth about the 1894 conviction of a certain Captain Dreyfus, after a shady spying case held in a controversial court-martial. A closed case, as far as the Law and the anti-Semitic General Staff were concerned: the Jewish traitor Dreyfus had been rightfully found guilty of selling intelligence secrets to Germany and sentenced to rot for the rest of his miserable life in solitary confinement on the Ile du Diable, far away off the coast of French Guyana. But, as early as 1895, however, Commandant Picquart, then the Head of the Intelligence agency, had reported his conviction that Dreyfus was not a German agent and, since then, more and more evidence was surfacing indicating that Dreyfus had been framed.

With his deliberate intervention in favor of a man whose innocence he did not doubt, Zola knew he was himself going to be sued for libel, but he hoped that the publicity of his own trial would help make the reopening of the Dreyfus' case possible, at least in the conscience of the French public opinion.

What he did not expect, however, was the enormous political and intellectual brouhaha and odious violence his action would trigger. The very political French newspapers flared up, leading every celebrity around to take a stand, soon revealing and enhancing many deep-rooted but closeted aspects of the divided French people's consciousness, in a battle that would be waged for many years to come.