'He really wasn't ready for the level of vilification he received'

How Émile Zola’s role in the Dreyfus Affair irrevocably changed European politics

Anti-Semitism was the vogue and criticizing the state tantamount to treason, but a new book shows that when the French novelist wrote ‘J’accuse,’ he reshaped a nation

An inset of 'Portrait of Émile Zola' by Édouard Manet, 1868, which hangs at the Musée d'Orsay. (public domain)
An inset of 'Portrait of Émile Zola' by Édouard Manet, 1868, which hangs at the Musée d'Orsay. (public domain)

LONDON — On 18 July 1898, Émile Zola vanished from his Parisian home.

The French novelist and global celebrity had just caused a national sensation in France by penning an open letter published on the front page of the turn-of-the-century liberal newspaper L’ Aurore. The letter was addressed to the French prime minister, Félix Faure, under the headline “J’accuse.”

Consequently, Zola entered a secret political exile, holing up in south London for nearly a year until June 1899.

“J’accuse” was related to the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who had been labeled a traitor to the French Republic after he was accused of passing secrets to Germany.

Zola had fully committed himself to publicly defending Dreyfus, however, in the end, the Jewish soldier was found guilty, stripped of his rank and sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island — a notoriously brutal prison in French Guiana.

It was, in narrow terms, a simple story about a grave injustice. But looked at from a wider angle, there were other issues at stake too — predominantly anti-Semitism, which had been bubbling beneath the surface in France for some time before exploding. The political scandal split the country down the middle ideologically.

Michael Rosen, author of 'The Disappearance of Emile Zola.' (Courtesy)
Michael Rosen, author of ‘The Disappearance of Emile Zola.’ (Courtesy)

In a recently published book called “The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case,” British writer Michael Rosen explores how at the time, the political scandal cast doubt on the fundamental legitimacy of the French state.

Cover, 'The Disappearance of Émile Zola,' by Michael Rosen. (Courtesy)
Cover, ‘The Disappearance of Émile Zola,’ by Michael Rosen. (Courtesy)

Nowadays, Rosen points out, it may seem like a normal course of events for a member of the intelligentsia to criticize the state with vigor and even arrogance. But in the late 19th century, most citizens revered the state as a noble system of justice and government.

“Zola just shredded that,” says Rosen from his home in London. “And for some people that was obviously very frightening.”

By December 1900 the National Assembly in France passed an amnesty law that officially pardoned everyone who had been involved in the Dreyfus case. But the French army has never admitted to its wrongdoing. Technically, even today, Dreyfus is still guilty in France.

“Fundamentally Zola was right,” says Rosen. “The French State and the army had all collaborated and conspired to bring this injustice about.”

‘The French State and the army had all collaborated and conspired to bring this injustice about’

The letter Zola penned in1898 pleaded for Dreyfus’s innocence. Moreover, Zola single-handedly accused the French army and government of being guilty of a number of crimes — namely, illegality in the various trials, coverups, a campaign to mislead public opinion, and corruption.

Zola also went on to say in his infamous letter that “by appealing to the odious anti-Semitism, [the accusation] will destroy [a] freedom-loving France.”

Alfred Dreyfus, found guilty of espionage in a kangaroo court in late 19th century France. (Public domain/Wikimedia commons)
Alfred Dreyfus, found guilty of espionage in a kangaroo court in late 19th century France. (Public domain/Wikimedia commons)

“‘J’accuse’ became a leitmotif for intellectuals from that moment on,” says Rosen.

Zola was already a successful, world-renowned novelist. But prior to the Dreyfus case he had not been actively engaged in politics, Rosen says.

And so Zola found himself in direct conflict with both the left and right in France over the matter of anti-Semitism, unusually managing to establish an argument about the subject in the general French public discourse. Prior to this, anti-Semitism had generally only been discussed within Jewish communities across France.

Zola also brought the issue into a wider public argument about racial discrimination, pointing out that prejudice and persecution should not be tolerated in French public life.

Rosen says this was primarily because these negative discriminatory characteristics went in direct opposition to the values of pluralism that were supposed to have arisen from the French Revolution.

“Zola didn’t seem to have much contact with Jews directly,” he explains. “But he was firmly committed to writing a number of articles — prior to supporting Dreyfus — which publicly said, ‘Why have we got this crazy political movement of anti-Semitism in France?’”

Emila Zola (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Emila Zola (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Zola’s commitment to combating injustice is so important at this key juncture in late 19th century France, Rosen points out, because it changed how anti-Semitism was discussed and perceived in the French public domain — and within Europe and the wider world at large.

“We quite often think of anti-Semitism as being attached to a political party or to an individual,” says Rosen. “But in France during this moment they had newspapers that said, ‘We are anti-Semitic.’”

“So anti-Semitism was almost like a ‘legitimate’ political movement most reasonable people could take up.”

The groundbreaking essay that Zola had penned before the Dreyfus case — which gained him notoriety at the time — was entitled “Pour les Juifs,” which translates as “For The Jews.”

‘In France during this moment they had newspapers that said, ‘We are anti-Semitic’

Contained within this polemic was Zola’s critique of the French left, who, hitherto, had labeled all Jews as capitalists and all capitalists as Jews.

“Zola called it a hypocritical form of socialism,” says Rosen.

When Zola eventually became fully embroiled in the Dreyfus case, the abuse the writer received — even though he was not a Jew himself — had all the base characteristics of typical anti-Semitic slurs from the time, Rosen says.

J'Accuse, by Emile Zola, in the Dreyfus Affair (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘J’Accuse,’ by Emile Zola, in the Dreyfus Affair (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Zola was presented [in newspaper articles] as a pig smearing excrement on the map of France,” says Rosen. “He was also portrayed as this unclean person who had joined the Jews. But he really wasn’t ready for the level of vilification he received.”

For a novelist with a prestigious literary reputation before him, this public humiliation caused Zola considerable anxiety during the period while he was waiting for the justice of the Dreyfus case to be delivered.

“It’s quite clear from Zola’s letters at the time that in England he felt isolated and lonely. And it seems to have brought about a nervous breakdown where he collapsed under the strain of it all,” Rosen explains.

‘Zola focused all of the anger and the fury of the anti-Dreyfusards onto one person: himself’

“By making his famous newspaper article ‘Jaccuse’ [‘I Accuse’] and not making it ‘nous accusons’ [‘We Accuse’] Zola focused all of the anger and the fury of the anti-Dreyfusards onto one person: himself. So he found it really difficult,” he adds.

Zola argued in the French press at the time that if France gave up on its core Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité — it would begin the 20th century by “massacring all the Jews because they are of a different race and different faith.”

If Zola’s views seemed just a tad histrionic at the time, they would prove to be extremely prescient just four decades later, Rosen says.

As his latest book points out, it is possible to make a direct link — in both personnel and attitudes involved in the Dreyfus case — to the anti-Semitic Vichy regime during the World War II Nazi occupation of France.

'The Traitor: The Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus,' by Henri Meyer, portraying the stripping of the soldier's rank. (Wikimedia commons/public domain)
‘The Traitor: The Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus,’ by Henri Meyer, portraying the stripping of the soldier’s rank. (Wikimedia commons/public domain)

Indeed, events in wartime France, where foreign born Jews were deported to death camps in Poland by the thousands, was, in many ways, a tragic ideological rerun of the battles that Zola took part in during the arguments about the Dreyfus case, says Rosen.

“The Dreyfus case and the anti-Semitic movement were so powerful in France in the 1890s, that by the time the Vichy regime set itself up in the 1940s, the people with their roots in this anti-Dreyfus era were ready to step into place,” Rosen says.

Zola’s efforts in publicly defending Dreyfus may not have not fully rid France of its deeply entrenched culture of anti-Semitism for good, however Rosen maintains that the campaign did create two major changes.

He introduced a new kind of politics, and also ushered in a cultural shift in France and the wider world — especially for those on the left.

“The Dreyfus case was the first time that socialists, the left, and even to a certain extent the liberal intelligentsia, took on board that their job was to defend a victim of injustice who was Jewish,” says Rosen.

Essentially, “J’accuse” became a powerful way to critique class, culture, and the state, Rosen argues.

“That one newspaper article by Zola really transformed the way the left thought about society,” says Rosen.

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