J’Accuse – Emile Zola

Emile Zola is one of the most gifted French authors. His works won’t disappoint readers who expect more than mere storytelling. Through his work, Emile Zola has demonstrated his humane side with his sincere sympathy for human misery, and his tolerance of human follies. But if one work can define the man behind them, it’s his open letter to the then President of France Félix Faure, where he openly accuses the war council of its wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. His strong cry for justice, so boldly expressed, knowing that he’ll be prosecuted for libel and knowing that he’s exposing his person to mortal danger, is one of the best pieces of journalism from history that I’ve read.

Alfred Dreyfus’s case divided French society like none other in history. At a time of a rise in antisemitism, many were eager to see Dreyfus as a German spy and a traitor. He was seen as a “dirty Jew”, as if he, by merely being Jewish, could commit any “dirty” crime. There may have been a significant number of those who believed in his innocence, but few came forward. Zola was one of the defenders of Dreyfus and paid dearly for standing up for justice.

Alfred Dreyfus was only a scapegoat in some bigger political scheme. If you read about the Dreyfus case, you’ll see that Dreyfus was later pardoned and restored to service. If indeed he was truly a traitor, that wouldn’t have happened. So, it was all but right that Zola stood by his side. However, what is disturbing about the whole Dreyfus affair, apart from the injustice, is how strongly the antisemitism has shrouded the French society even as far back as the 1890s to make them absolutely blind towards the atrocious treatment of one individual just because he was Jewish. Holocaust doesn’t seem surprising after all. Years and years of silent hatred have brewed some monstrous inhumans.

Zola didn’t live to see the restoration of justice. His death, while in England, under suspicious circumstances only strengthens how widespread the antisemitism has been. Even offshore, he wasn’t safe. Maybe it was an accident even. But one cannot deny the fact that from time immemorial, those who stood for rights and justice were always persecuted, and in many instances, paid dearly for so standing up. In any case, Zola’s <i>J’accuse</i>, his open indictment, will be one of history’s best pieces of journalism and one of the most heartfelt calls for justice.

About the author

Piyangie Jay Ediriwickrema is an Attorney-at-Law by profession. Her devotion to literature has taken shape in reading and reviewing books of various genres set in different periods of time. She dabs at a little poetry and fiction of her own and hopes to share her work with the readers in the future.