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Risking Everything in Cause of Justice

Heroes: A century ago, writer Emile Zola put his career, maybe his life, on the line for truth, tolerance and reason.

January 13, 1998|PAMELA WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The image is unforgettable: a solitary Chinese student facing down the advancing tanks of the People's Army on their way to suppress a pro-democracy protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The lone figure, ramrod straight before the steel monsters of authoritarianism, symbolizes for the late 20th century the ideals of moral conviction and heroism.

A century ago, the image that epitomized these ideals was the simple phrase "J'Accuse" emblazoned across the front page of a scrappy Paris newspaper.

Then, as now, the world stood on the brink of a new century after decades of scientific, political and social revolution. Then, as now, "globalization" was the buzzword, and hopes were high that the new century would bring liberty and justice, equality and compassion. Then, as now, there were those in power who imprisoned people because they challenged authority, because they dared to have original thoughts, because they were "different."

"I accuse," wrote Emile Zola, one of France's great men of letters, 100 years ago today.

Standing ramrod straight against the machinations of his nation's army, Zola took a stand against corruption, anti-Semitism and injustice with an open letter to the president of France in which he detailed the framing of an innocent man and the subsequent cover-up by prominent generals and the War Ministry.

Zola knew he could be jeopardizing his career, his freedom and his life. But he felt compelled by a moral imperative to press for the triumph of truth, tolerance and reason.

And the result was what literary reviewer Merle Rubin has called "one of history's shining examples of the power of the pen."

When it was announced in 1894 that the French army had caught a traitor in its midst--Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans--most of France took it for granted that the army was right in court-martialing Dreyfus and sending him to Devil's Island for life.

Zola was in his mid-50s at the time, a successful, controversial novelist. Though some conservative critics labeled his gritty realism and use of slang "pornographic," his work was hailed by others and led to great financial success. An officer in the Legion of Honor, Zola had assumed the late Victor Hugo's position as the leading figure in French literature and was closer than ever to fulfilling his lifelong ambition of becoming a member of the French Academy.

It would have been easy for him to ignore the chaos that gripped France in the aftermath of Dreyfus' conviction. He could have kept safe and comfortable in his country home outside Paris, far from the fray.

But Zola was disturbed by the virulence unleashed by the conviction of Dreyfus, who was Jewish. The army and much of France saw Dreyfus' guilt as a condemnation of all Jews, and a furor of nationalism and anti-Semitism erupted onto the streets.

The French press, according to Robert Singer--executive director of the Assn. Internationale de Zola et Naturalisme, an organization for the study of Zola and naturalist literature--saw "the rise of the openly racist tabloid [and] the rise of anti-Semitism as a tolerated and debated way of life."

Biographer Frederick Brown in "Zola: A Life" quotes an 1896 article in which Zola decries such bigotry as "a monstrosity . . . something outside the pale of common sense, of truth and justice, a blind, fatuous thing that would push us back centuries."

The camp of die-hards who believed in Dreyfus' innocence--the so-called Dreyfusards--used Zola's denunciation of anti-Semitism as an opportunity to draw the famous writer to their cause.

They laid before him evidence that a gross miscarriage of justice had been perpetrated by the army--which knew the identity of the real traitor and covered it up--and that, as a result, an innocent man was imprisoned.

Zola was swayed and, as biographer Brown puts it, he felt "a campaign was necessary . . . with brief, trenchant articles challenging the enemy and stirring public indignation."

His first salvo was a November 1897 article published in Le Figaro that provided the famous phrase that would become the slogan of the Dreyfusards: "Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it!"

For weeks Zola ratcheted up the pressure on the government for a review of Dreyfus' case with a series of articles in which he warned that France, by letting the military run roughshod over the rights of an innocent man, was marching toward dictatorship.

On Jan. 13, 1898, a day after the army had gone so far as to stage the acquittal of the truly guilty man in an effort to hide its own culpability, Zola published his "Letter to Mr. Felix Faure, president of the republic."

"France has a stain on its cheek," Zola wrote, "and history will record that it was under your presidency that such a social crime could have been committed."

He went on to outline the twists and turns of the "abominable Dreyfus affair" and to warn that the honor of France was in jeopardy.

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