In 1898, this turned out to be a bad day for Emile Zola – he was convicted of libel and sentenced to prison. But he had known from the outset what he was risking.
Others were shocked – Zola was famous, respected and wealthy and he had done it all himself, rising from a life of poverty to become a celebrated author and intellectual – an intellectual whose books actually sold.
But he had publicly – very publicly – accused the government and the army of anti-semitism and obstruction of justice in the matter of Alfred Dreyfus. His accusation, known by its title ‘J’Accuse,’ appeared on the front page of a liberal newspaper on January 13 and events followed quickly.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was at that point serving his life term for treason on Devil’s Island -he had been found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans. Despite the fact that no evidence could be found against him, Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was tried and convicted. Not long after, an Intelligence officer named Lt. Colonel Henry Picquart found evidence proving that Major Ferdinand Esterhazy was the actual traitor and he reported his findings to his superior officers.
Picquart was told to shut up about his new evidence and quickly given orders transferring him to Tunisia. Before leaving Paris, Picquart told some Dreyfus supporters what he had found and a member of the Senate publicly asserted Dreyfus’ innocence and Esterhazy’s guilt. But the government – which went so far as to try Esterhazy – would not allow the new evidence and Esterhazy was acquitted. Picquart, on the other hand, was sentenced to 60 days in prison.
Dreyfus was offered a pardon by the new government, although a pardon did not exonerate him. That finally happened in 1906. He went on to serve in WWI and was awarded the Legion of Honor.
Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. Since his life had been threatened many times by anti-Dreyfus elements, his friends asked for an investigation; no evidence of a crime could be found. Curiously, many years later, a Parisian roofer confessed on his deathbed to having blocked Zola’s chimney.
A century after the Dreyfus affair, the French Catholic newspaper Le Croix apologized for the anti-semitic editorials it had published at the time.