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In the letter, Zola addressed President of France Félix Faure and accused the government of anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Army General Staff officer who was sentenced to lifelong penal servitude for espionage. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. The letter was printed on the front page of the newspaper and caused a stir in France and abroad. Zola was prosecuted for libel and found guilty on 23 February 1898. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England, returning home in June 1899.
Other pamphlets proclaiming Dreyfus's innocence include Bernard Lazare's A Miscarriage of Justice: The Truth about the Dreyfus Affair (November 1896). As a result of the popularity of the letter, even in the English-speaking world, J'accuse! has become a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against someone powerful.
Alfred Dreyfus was born in 1859 in the city of Mulhouse, which was then located in the province of Alsace in northeast France. Born into a prosperous Jewish family, he left his native town for Paris in 1871 in response to the annexation of the province by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War. In 1894, while an artillery captain for the General Staff of France, Dreyfus was suspected of providing secret military information to the German government.
A cleaning woman and French spy by the name of Madame Bastian working at the German Embassy was at the source of the investigation. She routinely searched wastebaskets and mailboxes at the German Embassy for suspicious documents. She found a suspicious bordereau (detailed listing of documents) at the German Embassy in 1894, and delivered it to Commandant Hubert-Joseph Henry, who worked for French military counterintelligence in the General Staff.
The bordereau had been torn into six pieces, and had been found by Madame Bastian in the wastepaper basket of Maximilian von Schwartzkoppen, the German military attaché. When the document was investigated, Dreyfus was convicted largely on the basis of testimony by professional handwriting experts: the graphologists' assertion was that "the lack of resemblance between Dreyfus' writing and that of the bordereau was proof of a 'self-forgery,' and prepared a fantastically detailed diagram to demonstrate that this was so." There were also assertions from military officers who provided confidential evidence.
Dreyfus was found guilty of treason in a secret military court-martial, during which he was denied the right to examine the evidence against him. The Army stripped him of his rank in a humiliating ceremony and shipped him off to Devil's Island, a penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana in South America.
At this time, France was experiencing a period of anti-Semitism, and there were very few outside his family who defended Dreyfus. In 1899, Dreyfus returned to France for a retrial, but although found guilty again, he was pardoned. In 1906, Dreyfus appealed his case again, to obtain the annulment of his guilty verdict. In 1906, he was also awarded the Cross of the Légion d'honneur, which stated, “a soldier who has endured an unparallelled martyrdom.”
Émile Zola was born on 2 April 1840 in Paris. Zola's main literary work was Les Rougon-Macquart, a monumental cycle of twenty novels about Parisian society during the French Second Empire under Napoleon III and after the Franco-Prussian War. He was also the founder of the Naturalist movement in 19th-century literature. Zola was among the strongest proponents of the Third Republic and was elected to the Légion d'honneur. He risked his career in January 1898 when he decided to stand up for Alfred Dreyfus. Zola wrote an open letter to the President of France, Félix Faure, accusing the French government of falsely convicting Alfred Dreyfus and of anti-Semitism. His intention was to draw the accusation so broadly that he would essentially force men in the government to sue him for libel. Once the suit was filed, the Dreyfusards (supporters of Dreyfus) would have the opportunity to acquire and publicize the shaky evidence on which Dreyfus had been convicted. Zola titled his letter "J’accuse" (French for "I accuse"), which was published on the front page of Georges Clemenceau's liberal Paris daily L'Aurore. Zola was brought to trial for libel for publishing his letter to the President, and was convicted two weeks later. He was sentenced to jail and was removed from the Légion d'honneur. To avoid jail time, Zola fled to England, and stayed there until the French Government collapsed; he continued to defend Dreyfus. Four years after this famous letter to the president, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked chimney. On 4 June 1908, Zola's remains were laid to rest in the Panthéon in Paris.
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Émile Zola argued that "the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus was based on false accusations of espionage and was a misrepresentation of justice." He first points out that the real man behind all of this is Major du Paty de Clam. Zola states: "He was the one who came up with the scheme of dictating the text of the bordereau to Dreyfus; he was the one who had the idea of observing him in a mirror-lined room. And he was the one whom Major Forzinetti caught carrying a shuttered lantern that he planned to throw open on the accused man while he slept, hoping that, jolted awake by the sudden flash of light, Dreyfus would blurt out his guilt."
Next, Zola points out that if the investigation of the traitor was done properly, then the evidence would clearly show that the bordereau came from an infantry officer, not an artillery officer such as Dreyfus.
Zola argues Dreyfus's innocence can be readily inferred from the circumstances when he states: "These, Sir, are the facts that explain how this miscarriage of justice came about; The evidence of Dreyfus's character, his affluence, the lack of motive and his continued affirmation of innocence combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the 'dirty Jew' obsession that is the scourge of our time."
After more investigation, Zola points out that a man by the name of Major Esterhazy was the man who should have been convicted of this crime, and there was proof provided, but he could not be known as guilty unless the entire General Staff was guilty, so the War Office covered up for Esterhazy.
At the end of his letter, Zola accuses General Billot of having held in his hands absolute proof of Dreyfus's innocence and covering it up. He accuses both General de Boisdeffre and General Gonse of religious prejudice against Alfred Dreyfus. He accuses the three handwriting experts, Messrs. Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of submitting false reports that were deceitful, unless a medical examination finds them to be suffering from a condition that impairs their eyesight and judgment.
Zola's final accusations were to the first court martial for violating the law by convicting Alfred Dreyfus on the basis of a document that was kept secret, and to the second court martial for committing the judicial crime of knowingly acquitting Major Esterhazy.
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