Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army General Staff officer sentenced to life in prison for espionage in spite of very flimsy evidence and judicial errors. However, the military had a lot to cover up, and needed a scapegoat. Dreyfus, a Jew, provided the perfect whipping boy, especially given the intense anti-semitism of the French military at that time. He 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 and shipped him off to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America.
Émile Zola was an influential French writer who wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers, as well as short stories, essays, plays and novels. His article “J’Accuse” published on the front page of the Paris daily L’Aurore on this date in history accused the highest levels of the French Army of obstruction of justice and anti-semitism by having wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment. The case, known as the Dreyfus affair, deeply divided public opinion in France.
Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on February 7, 1898 and was convicted and removed from the Legion of Honor. Rather than go to jail, he fled to England.
The political right and the leadership of the Catholic Church — both of which were openly hostile to the Republic — declared the Dreyfus case to be a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons designed to damage the prestige of the army and thereby destroy France.
In the meantime, two years after Dreyfus’s conviction, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart was appointed Chief of Army Intelligence. After examining the evidence and investigating the Dreyfus affair in great detail, even Picquart – an unapologetic anti-semite, was forced to conclude that Dreyfus was innocent, and that the guilty officer was a major named Walsin Esterhazy.
However, the army was more concerned about preserving its image than rectifying its error, and Picquart was transferred to Tunisia. A military court then acquitted Esterhazy, ignoring the convincing evidence of his guilt.
Nonetheless, the government offered Dreyfus a pardon (rather than exoneration), which he could accept and go free (thus admitting to guilt). Alternatively, he could face a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again. Although he was clearly not guilty, he chose to accept the pardon. In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the French Supreme Court.
Zola was allowed to return to France in 1899 following a change of government after the death of French President Félix Faure (who died suddenly from apoplexy at age 58 while engaged in sexual activities in his office with his 30-year-old mistress, Marguerite Steinheil).
Tragically, Zola died on 29 September 1902 (at age 62) of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly ventilated chimney.