Emile nationality in 1789, the Jews of France suffered

Emile Zola’s J’accuse!
still holds a great standing in contemporary French culture, despite being
published 120 years ago. Being reputed as he was, the influence of the open
letter contesting political and judicial misjustice and corruption in regards
to the Dreyfus affair, during which an Jewish Alsatian was accused of relaying a
confidential bordereau to the Germans, cannot be understated; not only did it communicate
the injustice towards the individual he believed to be innocent, but Zola
exposed the scale of injustice surrounding Jews in France at the time as
constitutional, and its perceived impact upon France’s core values and
reputation. This text will discuss Zola’s attempts to evoke change in the first
and final sections of J’accuse! through
references to morality and myth, patriotism and responsibility, which,
combined, result in the persuasive and impactful piece that ultimately led to
Dreyfus’s 1906 rehabilitation.

Certainly a key contender, if not the main cause, of Alfred Dreyfus’s
incrimination is the historical representation of Jews in French culture. Only
granted true French nationality in 1789, the Jews of France suffered antisemitism
from both sides of the political spectrum, often stereotyped as bourgeois and
capitalist, and misaligned with the patriotic values of France. As indicated by
Zola, the press, having been liberated by the introduction of new legislation
in 1881, contributed to further alienation of the French Jewish community. As
put by Rothstein 1
‘From the start this was essential to the way his accusers shaped the evidence
and judged his character.’ In order to overcome this obstacle in acquitting
Drefus, Zola focusses strongly on the morality of the situation, asserting that
the captain was indeed innocent, “Je ne veux pas être complice. Mes nuits seraient hantées par le spectre de
l’innocent qui expie là-bas, dans la plus affreuse des tortures, un crime qu’il
n’a pas commis.” The emphasis of soon-to-be lost humanity not only
prompts urgency but defies the widespread cultural prejudice towards Jews, who
were viewed as inferior by many. Indeed, Zola contrasts this with a
dehumanising of those that sought to maintain the biased social order through
rallying for Esterhazy, who Zola maintains was culpable. In his words, “Je ne les connais pas, je ne les ai
jamais vus, je n’ai contre eux ni rancune ni haine. Ils ne sont pour moi que des
entités, des espirits de malfaisance sociale.” The writer disassociates
them from society, and alludes to ‘entités,’ whose inclusion is significant,
given the almost mythical origin of antisemitism in French society. In his
article ‘”En Famille”: The Dreyfus Affair and Its Myths’,2
Marrus argues that the country had been fuelling the affair with long-lived myths
aligned with antisemetic vision, particularly proliferated as a consequence of
the recent polemics involving the Union Générale. He states “for every perceived
ill in society, the anti-Semites has a story and an explanation… the
arch-antisemite Edouard Drumont made it clear, in La Libre Parole, how a litany of other stories pointed inexorably
to the Jewish captain’s (Dreyfus) guilt.” One could perceive Zola’s references
to these negative entities, combined with consistent imagery of dark and light,
as rhetoric to counteract the influence of such myths, and playing on France’s susceptibility
to affiliate demographics with negative intentions and images.

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This is particularly crucial to the efficacy of the letter,
as it introduces the concern for the fate of, not solely Dreyfus, but the President
Faure, to whom Zola addressed it, and France itself. Zola introduces this motif
of a mark, or stain that will taint the president’s reputation, and that of the
Republic, which continues throughout the text. This is furthermore highlighted
by the contrast of the ‘étoile’ seen in the first extract that represents the presidency
and France’s elite position compared to its neighbours and rivals, to the ‘souillure’
that will tarnish the so emphatically stated, otherwise unblemished historical
representations of the time. France’s implication is furthermore condemned by
Zola as he asserts the weakness that the divide will bring to the country. In ‘Why
the Dreyfus Affair Matters’3,
Louis Begley analyses the social ramifications of such a divisive moment for
French politics. He argues that the choice of either supporting those in power
or an individual one believes to be innocent reduces the national sense of security
and faith in the constitution within the population, and therefore the perceived
strength of a less than ideally unified nation to France’s rivals. Needless to
say, this would be an immense concern to those in power given to pressure of
the Franco-Prussian tensions following the war, and Zola certainly makes us of
the importance of national reputation to his advantage in his words “Et c’est
fini, la France a sur la joue cette souillure, l’histoire écrira que c’est sous
votre présidence qu’un tel crime social a pu être commis.” Here, the convincing
use of the future tense and another use of the repeated word ‘crime’ disgrace
the military and government, particularly in relation to Esterhazy’s acquittal.
Given that the major was deemed innocent by the same handwriting analysis upon
which Dreyfus was incriminated, the military’s corruption was clear, and Zola’s
hints at such culpability lead to discussion of responsibility.

Particularly within the first extract, the text utilises
both flattery and tones of urgency to instil a feeling of responsibility within
the intended reader, the president. The assertion of the government’s role to
assure justice and wellbeing for its citizens is maintained through both
flattery and a condemning of the affair. At the summit of his introduction, Zola
demonstrates that it is the task of none other than “le premier magistrat du
pays” to resolve the travesty, here intensified by the words “je la crierai, cette vérité, de toute la force de
ma révolte d’honnête homme. Pour votre honneur, je suis convaincu que vous l’ignorez.”
This idea of honesty is particularly effective given the patriotic links
to truth and freedom in the early lines of the introduction; compared to the
words “basses calomnies”, Zola repositions the two opposing sides of those condemning
or supporting Dreyfus to parties of right and wrong, the powerful government against
the slanderous bias of the press. Motifs of light and exposure assure the
reader that the revelation of truth is inevitable and imment, and further
connotes morality. Empowered through the tactical flattery and consistent
respect with which Zola addresses the president, the writer further strengthens
the obligation to contest the false verdict through personifying the core value
of truth: “Je le répète avec une certitude plus véhémente : la vérité est en
marche et rien ne l’arrêtera.”  Further
emphasising the urgency and power, also notably seen in the words “elle s’y
amasse, elle y prend une force telle d’explosion, que le jour où elle éclate,
elle fait tout sauter avec elle”, Zola makes no mistake in relaying the power
of the truth, regardless of whether it is supported by the military or
government and it is this that makes the letter so profoundly impactful.  

It can therefore be concluded that Zola’s rhetoric, making
use of historical notions of Jewish identity and representation to reflect upon
antisemites, remind the president, and the French public, that the Dreyfus
affair and its implications were truly severe and required urgent attention;
not only was the fate of an innocent man at stake, but that of the country.
Zola asserted how directly the two were connected, denouncing injustice and
demanding the transparency and moral decency of the military and the government
at the time. J’accuse! provoked a
renewed debate, but also drew the attention of other countries, and has since
become a staple in political history, the term being used in discussion of such
polemical figures as Donald Trump4
and Paul Stegers5, in
reaction to the actions of Germany in 1915 by Richard Grelling and even modern
pop culture references. It follows that the impact of Emile Zola’s most famous
work cannot be understated.



Begley, Louis, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, Yale University Press, (2007)

Degrelle, Léon, J’accuse M. Segers : j’accuse le ministre
Segers d’être un cumulard, un bankster, un pilard d’épargne et un lache, (1938)

Marrus, Michael R, ‘« En Famille » The Dreyfus Affair
and its Myths’, French Politics and
Society, Vol. 12, No.4, Commemorating 50 Years of Women’s Suffrage (2007) p.

Rothstein, Edward, ‘A Century Old Court Case That Still
Resonates’, The New York Times, (2007)

Accessed 14/01/2018


1 Edward
Rothstein ‘A Century Old Court Case That Still Resonates’, The New York Times,
2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/17/arts/design/17drey.html?pagewanted=1=1
Accessed 14/01/2018

2 Michael
R Marrus, ‘”En Famille” : The Dreyfus Affair and Its Myths’, French
Politics and Society, Vol. 12, No.4, Commemorating 50 Years of Women’s
Suffrage, 2007, p. 81

Louis Begley, ‘Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters’ Yale University Press, 2007

4 Peter
Baker’s reaction to the sacking of Comey, June 2017

Leon Degrelle, ‘J’accuse’, 1938