On this very day in 1898, the power a man’s words held was redefined. On this very day in 1898, governments realized that they are liable to the people and will be held accountable for their actions. On this very day in 1898, Zola pointed his finger and the whole world held their breath as he said, “J’accuse”!
Emile Zola was a well-known French writer who gained fame with the publication of his 20-novel cycle entitled ‘The Drunkard’. However, what really made Zola a household name the open letter he wrote to the French president in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who had been sentenced to lifelong penal servitude on the accusation of espionage. According to Zola, the government’s decision was largely biased due to their anti-Semitic nature and that the entire judicial process was flawed as there was no hard evidence involved. “These, Sir, are the facts that explain how this miscarriage of justice came about; The evidence of Dreyfus’s character, his affluence, the lack of motive and his continued affirmation of innocence combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the ‘dirty Jew’ obsession that is the scourge of our time.”
Zola’s letter gathered attention across the globe and provoked national outrage on both sides of the issue- amongst political parties and religious organisations. He was prosecuted and charged with libel but he fled the country to England to protect himself. Subsequently, Dreyfus was pardoned but he was not exonerated till 1906.
Emile Zola risked not just his career, but also his life when he decided to print this inflammatory 4000-word letter. His accusations were undaunted, his choice of words bombastic and his nerve and courage unbeatable. His defense of justice and religious freedom, in a time tainted with prejudice and distrust, rattled the two most powerful institutions in France- the Church and the military.
When a man decides to stand up for the rights of people, all it takes is a two-word headline that will change the entire thinking of society. Zola began a new era, giving the press the power to mold public opinion. “J’accuse!” he said, and the rest was history.
By Sanjana Ahuja