“J’ac­cuse brought the sor­did real­ity of France’s anti-Semitism out into the open”

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

Zola’s open let­ter was a brave move. His pub­lic ac­cu­sa­tion took on the forces of the French es­tab­lish­ment – army lead­ers, the rightwing press, and even the French pres­i­dent him­self.

J’Ac­cuse suc­ceeded in spark­ing off a new readi­ness of French in­tel­lec­tu­als to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism and in­ter­vene in the press in de­fence of hu­man rights. But it was at con­sid­er­able risk to them­selves, as was the case for Zola. De­spite his pop­u­lar­ity as a writer (his books in­clude L’As­som­moir and the acclaimed Ger­mi­nal), he was forced to flee to Eng­land in or­der to avoid im­pris­on­ment. COM­MENT / Dr Marisa Lin­ton

Zola’s open let­ter, pub­lished in L’Aurore, brought the sor­did real­ity of France’s wide­spread and deeply en­trenched anti-Semitism out into the open and deeply po­larised French so­ci­ety. This trou­bling un­der­cur­rent of anti-Semitism would con­tinue to char­ac­terise some sec­tions of French so­ci­ety, resur­fac­ing again dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

In 1899 Drey­fus was re-tried and was again found guilty, though a ‘par­don’ was is­sued. His name was of­fi­cially cleared in 1906, four years af­ter Zola’s death. But the J’Ac­cuse af­fair raised ques­tions about the treat­ment of reli­gious mi­nori­ties in France that are still with us to­day. Zola him­self is seen as in­spi­ra­tional for his courage in speak­ing out in de­fence of jus­tice and hu­man rights, and against racist big­otry.

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