The Dreyfus Affair and Emile Zola




It all happened during a very confusing and turbulent time in the French history. The Third Republic (1870 - 1914) had already lived a siege under Germans and the 'bloody week' of the Paris Commune. Then many conflicts started to erupt between monarchists and republicans, the political parties, the Catholic Church and the civic code of Napoleon, and within the army. Strong anti-semitic feelings were growing in the public and the newspapers. And at the centre of all of this there was a German threat that increased the public nationalism. In short, it was a time of confusion and conflicts.


Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish Captain in the French army. Until 1894, he was an ordinary and unknown man. One day, there were some papers discovered in the waste paper basket of a German military attache. These papers showed that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government. Dreyfus was under suspicion. There were really only two facts that made everyone suspect him: 1. He was Jewish, and 2. He had access to that type of information. There wasn’t any solid evidence against him but based on these two reasons, he was arrested. The army authorities were desperate to find and convict the guilty, and what better candidate than a jew when there was anti-jewish sentiments amongst the public. They claimed that his handwriting was similar to those on the papers. Dreyfus protested, he said he was innocent, but nobody listened to him. There was a secret military trial. Dreyfus was not allowed to examine the evidence against him. He was found guilty of treason and convicted to a life imprisonment on the Devil’s Island. Devil’s Island (see photos) was located near the French Guiana on the coast of South America and it was a penal colony where the French sent their criminals.


Devil's Island  Devil's Island


Dreyfus had few defenders. The newspapers and the French army was filled with anti-semitic ideas. Dreyfus was going to die in disgrace. In the meantime, the really guilty person, the true spy was still in his position, continuing to commit espionage and causing further damage to French military. But he was yet undetected, that is until Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart was appointed the chief of army intelligence two years after Dreyfus was convicted. Picquart was an anti-semite but nevertheless an honest man. He examined the evidence and investigated the affair in great detail. he concluded that the guilty officer was a Major named Walsin Esterhazy. But the army was not interested in the truth. The army was more concerned about preserving its image. It wouldn’t look good to admit an error of such scale. When Picquart insisted to reopen the Dreyfus case, they transferred him to Tunisia. A military court then acquitted Esterhazy and ignored all the evidence against him.


At this time, the family of Dreyfus contacted the author Emile Zola (1840 - 1902), writer of great masterpieces such as The Germinal. Dreyfus family gave Emile Zola all the papers related to his trial and asked his help. Emile Zola, convinced of innocence of Dreyfus, wrote his now very famous open letter, known as J’ACCUSE! (I accuse!) to the President of the Republic and it was published in a daily newspaper. The letter (see portions of the text included) started with "Monsieur le President" and explained the details of the whole affair, all the evidence of innocence of Dreyfus and the guilt of Esterhazy. Emile Zola continued with several sentences that started with "J’accuse" and accused the many prejudiced, anti-semitic officers of the army who ignored the true evidence and convicted Dreyfus. He ended his letter with "J’attends" (I am waiting.).






Monsieur le Président,


Me permettez-vous, dans ma gratitude pour le bienveillant accueil que vous m'avez fait un jour, d'avoir le souci de votre juste gloire et de vous dire que votre étoile, si heureuse jusqu'ici, est menacée de la plus honteuse, de la plus ineffaçable des taches?




Je n'ai qu'une passion, celle de la lumière, au nom de l'humanité qui a tant souffert et q u a droit au bonheur. Ma protestation enflammée n'est que le cri de mon âme. Qu'on ose donc me traduire en cour d'assises et que l'enquête ait lieu au grand jour!




Veuillez agréer, monsieur le Président, l'assurance de mon profond respect.




When Emile Zola’s letter was published, he was found guilty of issuing false statements against the army and destroying its reputation. Emile Zola was convicted to imprisonment but he escaped to England and stayed there until he was pardoned. At this point France became divided on the topic. There were arguments of Dreyfus affair everywhere. Some people believed his innocence and some people believed his guilt. A cartoonist named Caran D’Ache demonstrated the division of the French people on this issue with a cartoon showing a family dinner (see below). In the first picture we see a lovely family get-together and the eldest member of the family says, just before dinner, "we are not going to talk about the Dreyfus Affair". Then in the next picture we see that they have talked about it.


Cartoon by Caran D’Ache illustrating the furious disputes created by the Dreyfus Affair

A Family Dinner

Dreyfus Affair - cartoon by Caran D’Ache

And above all, we are not going to talk about the Dreyfus Affair!

Dreyfus Affair - cartoon by Caran D’Ache

... they have talked about it...


Sometime later another military officer discovered some additional documents on the case. Another officer had forged the documents to make Dreyfus look guilty. As soon as this was discovered, the officer who forged the documents committed suicide. With Emile Zola’s intervention and new evidence, a new trial was started. However, the army once again found Dreyfus guilty and sent him back to the Devil’s island.


Later in 1899 the president of France pardoned Dreyfus. He returned back to Paris. In 1906 he was cleared of all charges and his former military rank was given back to him. The whole affair had lasted 12 years between his conviction in 1894 and his exoneration in 1906.


The Dreyfus affair did not weaken but strengthened the Republic. The moderates, radicals and socialists started to work together. Some newspaper apologized for their anti-semitic publications.




A Traveller’s History of Paris - Robert Cole

A Concise History of France - Roger Price (The D’Ache cartoon is from this source)

Encyclopedia Britannica, Millenium DVD (The text of letter J’accuse! is from this source) (Photographs of Devil's Island are from this source)




Zola - Tomb


Tomb of Zola in Montmartre Cemetery, Paris.



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