French Ministry Pays $1 Million for Zola’s 1898 ‘j’accuse’ Letter

The French Ministry of Culture has paid $1 million for the original manuscript of Emile Zola’s famed “J’Accuse,” the author’s open letter to the French president, asserting the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus.

The 39-page letter, written in 1898, was purchased for the Bibliotheque Nationale, the state library.

In December 1894, Capt. Dreyfus, a Jewish officer attached to the French general staff, was convicted of treason on the basis of falsified evidence. He was found guilty by a military court and sentenced to public degradation and banishment for life to Devil’s Island.

Zola’s letter, which was written after a military appeals court reaffirmed Dreyfus’ conviction, accused the French military of anti-Semitism.

It was published on Jan. 13, 1898 on the front page of L’Aurore (The Dawn), a daily founded by Georges Clemenceau, a member of Parliament and future prime minister of France.

Clemenceau chose the title of the letter, which means “I accuse.”

The document charged that the War Office and General Staff, which had convicted Dreyfus in camera, was inspired by anti-Semitic and other improper motives. The letter named the true culprit, Maj. Ferdinand Esterhazy, as having provided secret documents to the German military attache to Paris.

Following publication of his letter, Zola was found guilty of libel in a trial, at which the question of Dreyfus’ innocence was not admissable. The writer was sentenced to a year in prison but fled to England.

LED TO CHANGE IN JEWISH THOUGHT

The Dreyfus case split French society as no other event since the 1789 French Revolution. The country came close to civil war. Anti-Semitism was rampant and pogroms occurred in Marseille, Bordeaux and Algiers, which was then under French control.

The case was indirectly responsible for a radical change in Jewish thought. Its influence on Theodor Herzl, a young Viennese journalist in Paris at the time of the trial and condemnation of Dreyfus, can be said to have planted the seeds of political Zionism.

In 1899, Dreyfus was reconvicted and sentenced to a year in prison. But 10 days later, the president pardoned Dreyfus. In 1906, his full rights were restored and he was promoted to major.

Zola’s manuscript remained with his family until its sale last week by the widow of his grandson, Francois Emile-Zola, and his great-granddaughter, Brigitte Place.

In 1987, Francois Emile-Zola sued to stop the sale of the manuscript, which Place had asked Sotheby’s to sell. The letter had originally been scheduled to be auctioned in December 1987.

Francois Emile-Zola charged that his daughter had no right to sell the manuscript, according to his father’s will of June 12, 1961, which said, “I ask that the mementoes left to me by father and mother never be sold.”

But the father, Jacques Emile-Zola, added, “If my inheritors cannot keep all or part of my collection, I ask them to donate it to the Zola Museum or to the Bibliotheque Nationale.”

NEXT STORY