Zola Writes ‘J’Accuse’ Letter
Émile Zola. Photo: Public Domain

January 13, 1898

Influential French writer Emile Zola publishes an open letter to French President Felix Faure under the headline “J’Accuse” (“I Accuse”), charging Faure and the French government with anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. Zola points out serious judicial errors in the treason case against army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and claims a lack of evidence. The 4,500-word letter is printed on the front page of the French newspaper L’Aurore, which distributes 10 times its normal circulation, and causes a stir in France and abroad.

“J’Accuse” is written immediately after the acquittal in a sham court-martial of Maj. Ferdinand Esterhazy, the French army officer who committed the spying on behalf of Germany that was blamed on Dreyfus, whose loyalty to France was suspect because he was Jewish. Dreyfus was convicted in December 1894, publicly stripped of his rank and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. The unfair trial and the public anti-Semitism surrounding it convinced Theodor Herzl, who covered the proceedings for a newspaper in Vienna, that the Jewish people needed their own homeland. An internal army investigation found proof in 1896 that Esterhazy was the actual spy, but the French General Staff refused to reconsider the court-martial conviction of Dreyfus. He is finally pardoned in 1906.

Zola is convicted of libel Feb. 23, 1898, and flees to England to avoid imprisonment, but he is able to return to France in June 1899.

Born in Paris in 1840, Zola’s main literary work before “J’Accuse” was “Les Rougon-Macquart,” a series of 20 novels about Parisian society during the rule of Napoleon III and after the Franco-Prussian War. He was one of the founders of the Naturalist movement in 19th century literature and was a strong proponent of France’s Third Republic.