On this day in 1898, French writer Emile Zola’s inflammatory newspaper editorial, entitled “J’accuse,” is printed. The letter exposed a military cover-up regarding Captain 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 excoriated the military for concealing its 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 to avoid the sentence. In 1899, Dreyfus was pardoned, but for political reasons was not exonerated until 1906. Zola returned to France shortly after Dreyfus’ pardon, and died in 1902.