“J’accuse!” is arguably the most famous newspaper headline ever. It was published January 13, 1898, as Emile Zola’s 4,000-word front-page open letter to the president of France in defense of French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Who was accused and convicted of treason. But as Zola pointed out, Dryfus’ actual crime was being Jewish. The primary evidence against Dreyfus was a slip of paper discovered in a German military trash can. French handwriting experts couldn’t definitively link the handwriting on the garbage can paper to Dreyfus’s handwriting. But that was enough for the French military to convict Dreyfus at a court-martial trial.
The entire Dreyfus Affair demonstrated that concerning Antisemitism, little has changed between the late 1800s and today.
The Dreyfus affair generated Anti-Semitic riots worldwide. In France, there were more than twenty French cities, and riots in Algiers resulted in several deaths. The anti-Semitic riots of 1896 and 1897 were similar to the violent 2023-3034 anti-Semitic riots worldwide caused by Israel defending herself after the October 7 massacre.
Dreyfus suffered through a public ceremony called a degradariiion ceremony. It was attended by 20K French citizens who enjoyed watching Dreyfus stripped of his military insignia and his sword broken in half.
Dreyfus wrote in is tome” Five Years of My Life: The Diary of Captain Alfred Dreyfus,” Parts of which were published in the UMKC site of famous trials:
As soon as the sentence had been read out, I cried aloud, addressing myself to the troops: “Soldiers, they are degrading an innocent man. Soldiers they are dishonoring an innocent man. Vive la France, vive l’armee!
A Sergeant of the Republican Guard came up to me. He tore off rapidly buttons, trousers stripes, the signs of my rank from cap and sleeves, and then broke my sword across his knee. I saw all these material emblems of my honor fall at my feet. Then, my whole being racked by a fearful paroxysm, but with body erect and head high, I shouted again and again to the soldiers and to the assembled crowd the cry of my soul.
“A clear voice issues from the group:-
“‘You know well that you are not innocent. Vive la France! Dirty Jew!’
Dirty Jew? Gee, some hateful comments have never changed, either.
After his conviction, Dreyfus was sentenced to a lifetime of solitary confinement at Devil’s Island, considered by many the most feared prison in the world.
Reporting about the riots and degradation ceremony disgusted a Viennese newspaper reporter. Theodor Herzl saw the hatred of Jews generated by the trial, and the subsequent riots helped motivate Herzl to come to the realization that Jews will never be safe until they are living in a Jewish state.
Wanting to build a powerful Zionist movement, Herzl convinced tiny Zionist organizations to consolidate and become one strong Zionist movement. A movement for the self-determination and statehood of the Jewish nation in their eternal homeland, the land of Israel.
Today, nations practice anti-Israelism, which is a polite way to express their Antisemitism. However expressed, the Anti-Semitic hatred of today proves Herzl’s word about the need for a Jewish State still rings true,
The Dreyfus affair continued to simmer. There were many articles supporting or opposing the arrest and imprisonment of Captain Dreyfus. The most impactful was J’Accuse, an open letter to the president of France written by Emile Zola and published on January 13, 1898, on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore’ the open letter, said in part.
These, then, are the facts that explain how a miscarriage of justice may have been committed; and the moral proofs, Dreyfus’s fortune, the absence of reasons, his continual cry of innocence, finish showing him as a victim of the extraordinary imaginations of the commander of Paty de Clam, of the clerical environment where he was, hunting down “dirty Jews”, which dishonors our times.
Zola’s open letter accused the highest levels of the French Army of Antisemitism. And based on their hatred of Jews, they wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus. The open letter ends by naming the names of high-ranking men in the military who were complicit in or aided this miscarriage of justice. L’Aurore, which usually had a circulation of 30k, sold 300k copies of the paper when J’Accuse was on the front page.
Zola’s writing and libel action did not free Dereyfus. But it did move him closer to his goal of being proven innocent. Zola’s work also exposed the growing Antisemitism within the French military. Dreyfus’s release and his being declared innocent would not have happened without Zola’s effort, which proved that one person can make a difference.
In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France for a new court-martial trial. This one took place at the Rennes, France, military prison. Despite all the evidence proving his innocence discovered since his first trial, Dreyfus was convicted again. At least this time, his sentence was limited to ten years at the Rennes military prison. Still a prison but a giant up from Devil’s Island.
Dreyfus didn’t have to stay at his new prison for long. On September 19, 1899, just a few days after his second conviction, the president of France, wanting to finally end the Dreyfus Affair, pardoned Dreyfus. He accepted the pardon but reserved the right to continue his quest to establish his innocence. Seven years later, in 1906, the French Court of Cassation declared Dreyfus innocent.
The Dreyfus affair was finally over. But the Antisemitism continues.