On this day in 1898, French writer Emile Zola is brought to trial for libel for “J’Accuse,” his newspaper editorial attacking the French army over the Dreyfus affair.
On January 13, Zola had published his editorial in the newspaper L’Aurore. The letter exposed a military cover-up regarding Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus, a French army captain, had been accused of espionage in 1894 and sentenced in a secret military court-martial to imprisonment in a South American penal colony. Two years later, evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence surfaced, but the army suppressed the information. Zola’s letter exposed the military’s mistaken conviction.
Zola was a well-known writer who had published his first story collection more than three decades earlier. A high school dropout, he had worked in the sales department of a major French publisher, who encouraged his writing and published his first book. He became one of the most famous writers in France with the publication of his 1877 hit, The Drunkard, part of his 20-novel cycle exploring the lives of two families.
Zola’s letter provoked national outrage on both sides of the issue, among political parties, religious organizations, and others. Supporters of the military sued Zola for libel. He was convicted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, but he fled France. In 1899, Dreyfus was pardoned, but for political reasons he was not exonerated until 1906. Shortly after Dreyfus’ pardon, Zola returned to France, where he died in 1902.