La Bête républicaine

Christopher Prendergast

  • The Dreyfus Affair: ‘J’Accuse’ and Other Writings by Emile Zola, edited by Alain Pagès, translated by Eleanor Levieux
    Yale, 208 pp, £25.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 300 06689 9
  • Zola: A Life by Frederick Brown
    Farrar, Straus, 888 pp, £37.50, May 1996, ISBN 0 374 29742 8

In September 1894, the Intelligence Bureau of the French Army intercepted a memorandum (the so-called ‘bordereau’) sent to the German military attaché in Paris, informing him that important details concerning French national defence would shortly be communicated to the Germans. The military authorities were baffled as to the source, but suspicion fell on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, at the time serving in a probationary capacity on the General Staff. The ‘bordereau’ was submitted secretly to handwriting experts, the first expressing doubts that it was by Dreyfus, the second (Bertillon, the inventor of anthropometry, a system for identifying criminals on the basis of an inherent ‘criminality’) concluding in connivance with the authorities that it was indeed in Dreyfus’s hand. Arrested, tried, found guilty of treason, publicly stripped of military office and sentenced to both deportation and life imprisonment, Dreyfus was sent to French Guiana and from there to Devil’s Island.

It was because Dreyfus was a Jew that the trumped-up charge of treason was entwined with racism. In part this was a replay of a centuries-old scenario of anti-semitic scapegoating. But it also had a new context in a 19th-century history that produced a formal theory of ‘race’ in alliance with the values of nationalism, and it was this particular conjunction that made the Affair such an explosive one, widening the fault-lines and divisions of the Third Republic and its major institutions.

The most famous of those who believed Dreyfus to be innocent and campaigned for his release was Emile Zola, and the most famous of his many journalistic interventions (gathered in The Dreyfus Affair along with interviews and private letters written in voluntary exile in 1898-9) was ‘J’accuse’, the open letter he addressed to Félix Faure, President of the Republic. Zola was fully conscious of his role as public intellectual, citing the precedent of Victor Hugo: ‘If such an odious deed had been done in Hugo’s time, he would have thundered with the voice of justice and defended the people’s rights.’ Zola, too, thunders, passionately, magisterially, amid the clamour of the populists, liars, opportunists, cowards and charlatans who crowded the public stage of the Affair.

The republication of the legendary letter, together with the documents that surrounded it invites reflection on what it meant to be a public intellectual in late 19th-century France. Obviously it meant, among other things, speaking in the name of Justice. But in Zola’s mind the issue soon transcended the orchestration of a campaign to secure the release of an innocent man. To speak of Justice was to speak in the name of the Republic, and of the great historical experience which gave birth to it, the Revolution. This is Zola’s key move, for example, in his address to the jury at the time of his own trial for libel in connection with the publication of ‘J’accuse’ (the guilty verdict was the cause of his removal to England):

By now, gentlemen, the Dreyfus Affair is a very minor matter, very remote and very blurred, compared to the terrifying questions it has raised. There is no Dreyfus Affair any longer. There is only one issue: is France still the France of the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the France which gave the world liberty, and was supposed to give it justice?

This is the Republican language of law and rights, and in speaking it, Zola became, temporarily, an outlaw and a fugitive. The title itself, ‘J’accuse’, is redolent of the discourse of the Revolutionary tribunal, of Robespierre and Fouquier-Tinville.

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