The power of the written word

JaccuseJ’Accuse By Émile Zola (Scan of L’Aurore) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

J’accuse–‘I accuse’–Émile Zola’s infamous open letter to the President of the French Republic, Félix Faure. Published on the front page of l’Aurore, January 13, 1898 the letter built a case against the government, accusing leaders of anti-Semitism in the wrongful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French military officer convicted of treason in a secret military court, stripped of rank, and sent to Devil’s Island, a French penal colony.

The letter led to Dreyfus’ pardon a year later. And in 1906, when Dreyfus appealed again, the verdict was annulled and he was awarded the  Légion d’Honneur for “unparalleled martyrdom.”

You might say Zola gave his life for the life of another. For you see, one month after the publication of his letter, Zola was tried and convicted of libel. He fled to England. He was stripped of his own Légion d’Honneur. And in 1902 he died of carbon monoxide poisoning, due to a blocked chimney.

Today his remains lie in the Panthéon, the resting place of French heroes. He shares a crypt with Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

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