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Emile Zola

Year Published



Primary Source


Argument, History

At a Glance

  • In 1894 a French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), was convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, received hostile treatment from the French press.
  • In 1896 evidence emerged that Dreyfus was innocent. Another man, Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy (1847–1923), was tried and acquitted in 1898 of the same crime.
  • Esterhazy's acquittal caused an outrage. Émile Zola (1840–1902), a famous writer, wrote an angry letter addressing the president of France. The letter was published on the front page of the newspaper L'Aurore on January 13, 1898.
  • Zola's letter, titled J'Accuse (meaning "I Accuse"), protests that Dreyfus was an innocent victim of an anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) witch hunt, launched to cover up for the real spy and the incompetence of French military leaders.
  • Zola dared the French authorities to arrest him for libel (publishing defamatory, or insulting, statements about people). He was arrested, tried, and convicted of libel and sentenced to a year in prison.
  • Zola's letter helped fuel public anger over how Dreyfus had been treated. As a result, in 1898 Dreyfus was retried and convicted again, but he received a pardon from the president.
  • In 1906 Dreyfus was finally cleared. The Dreyfus Affair revealed major flaws in the French military and political systems, as well as widespread anti-Semitism in French society. Zola's letter played a major role in identifying and denouncing these trends.


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