This post celebrates the 44,000th title Distributed Proofreaders has posted to Project Gutenberg: The Trial of Emile Zola. Congratulations and thanks to all the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers who worked on it!
The Trial of Emile Zola is a first-hand account of a crucial stage in one of the most important events of French history: the Dreyfus Affair. In September of 1894, an operative of French counterintelligence found, in a wastebasket at the German embassy in Paris, an unsigned note (generally referred to as the “bordereau”) that proved that French military secrets were being delivered to foreign powers. Immediately an investigation was launched, and before long the military authorities had settled on Captain Alfred Dreyfus as the culprit: because he was taciturn and unpopular, because his handwriting bore a vague resemblance to that on the bordereau, and, most of all, because he was Jewish. Dreyfus was convicted in a closed military trial on the basis of tenuous evidence such as his handwriting, and other evidence that was wholly fabricated, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the awful conditions of the penal colony of Devil’s Island in the Caribbean. Before his deportation, he was stripped of his rank in a ceremony wherein his marks of rank were torn off his uniform, his sword was taken from him and broken, and he was made to parade around a square in front of his former comrades and a huge crowd of civilians shouting, among other things, “Death to the Jew.”
Dreyfus’s family believed his claims of innocence, and campaigned for his release to what was, initially, an overwhelmingly hostile public, influenced by extreme anti-Semites for whom Dreyfus’s supposed guilt was a vindication of their beliefs about the Jewish race. Gradually, evidence emerged that pointed to a Catholic French officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy – a heavily indebted drunkard – as the bordereau’s likely author. His handwriting matched it perfectly. French society became split between the Dreyfusards, who believed in Dreyfus’s innocence, and the anti-Dreyfusards, who believed in his guilt. Both camps felt themselves to be defending their own vision of French society – the Dreyfusards defending the liberal Republic against a reactionary, anti-Semitic political Catholicism, and the anti-Dreyfusards defending Catholic France against a conspiracy of liberal intellectuals, Jews, and foreign agents. By January of 1898, the Dreyfusards had sufficient support to compel the military to place Esterhazy on trial for the same crimes of which it had convicted Dreyfus, but this trial was another closed military tribunal, and Esterhazy was acquitted.
It was at this point that Émile Zola, already a notable novelist, entered the controversy. He had published in L’Aurore, a liberal newspaper edited by future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, an open letter addressed to President Félix Faure, with the now-famous title “J’Accuse…!” The letter, which is reprinted in full in this volume, accused the leadership of the French military of a conspiracy to condemn an innocent man, because of an initial incompetent and prejudiced investigation, and the subsequent necessity to defend the false verdict it reached because, otherwise, “the war offices would fall under the weight of public contempt.” He directly accused the trials of both Dreyfus and Esterhazy of illegality, and of having convicted Dreyfus and acquitted Esterhazy according to orders, asserting: “It is my duty to speak; I will not be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man who is atoning, in a far-away country, by the most frightful of tortures, for a crime that he did not commit.” Unable to ignore Zola’s accusations – which would have been a tacit admission of their truth – the government sued Zola, as well as the legally-responsible editor of the article, Alexandre Perrenx, for libel, and thus on February 7, 1898, the trial of Zola, which is recorded in this book, began.
Zola’s trial lasted fifteen days in total, with each day the courtroom’s public gallery packed with anti-Dreyfusards, and Zola obliged to pass through hostile crowds to enter the courthouse. From the first day, the difficulties which the defence would face became apparent – after each side had set out their case initially, the day was taken up by the reading of refusals to appear on the part of most of the high-ranking military witnesses, including Esterhazy himself, whom the defence had called. On the second day, the defence called its first witness, Alfred Dreyfus’s wife, and began to question her regarding her husband’s innocence in order to establish Zola’s good faith in making his accusations. Immediately, the judge cut him off, establishing another pattern for the trial, as the judge, prejudiced against Zola and unwilling to have embarrassing details of the Dreyfus trials publicly revealed, repeatedly prevented the defence from justifying those allegations for which Zola was on trial. Similar restrictions were not placed upon the prosecution, nor upon those witnesses hostile to Zola. At the end of this first exchange, Zola’s lawyer, Fernand Labori, asked the judge, given these restrictions, “what practical means you see by which we may ascertain the truth?”
“That does not concern me,” came the reply.
In the days that followed, a long sequence of witnesses spoke of the inconsistencies of the trial of Esterhazy; various generals made evasive or obstructive answers without reproach from the judge. More than once, witnesses were called by the defence, and then prevented by the judge from taking the stand, on the grounds that their testimony would relate to the Dreyfus case. On the sixth day, the Socialist Jean Jaurès recounted a remark from a right-wing editor which perhaps sums up the anti-Dreyfusard position, loyalties and prejudices superceding truth: “I believe profoundly in the guilt of Dreyfus. I believe it, because it seems to me impossible that French officers, having to judge another French officer, should have condemned him in the absence of overwhelming evidence. I believe it, because the power of the Jews, very great four years ago, as it is today, would have torn Dreyfus from the hands of justice, if there had been in his favor the slightest possibility of salvation.”
On the eleventh day, Major Esterhazy himself was called to the stand, protesting that “during the last eighteen months, in the shadow, there has been woven against me the most frightful conspiracy ever woven against any man. During that time I have suffered more than anyone of my contemporaries has suffered in the whole of his life.” He then refused to answer any questions that would be put by the defence, and for some time, Clemenceau, who had been present throughout the trial, proffered dozens of questions, all met with silence. Finally, as the judge attempted to prevent him from speaking, Clemenceau asked “how is it that one cannot speak of justice in a court?”
The judge replied: “Because there is something above that,—the honor and safety of the country.”
“I note,” finished Clemenceau, “that the honor of the country permits these things to be done, but does not permit them to be said.”
Finally, after fifteen days, the summing-ups were concluded and the jury retired to deliberate on their verdict. Just thirty-five minutes later, they returned, and declared both Zola and Perrenx guilty of libel. Minutes after that, the judge handed Zola the maximum sentence: a fine of 3,000 francs and a year’s imprisonment. The court was filled with the shouts of the audience: “Long live the army! Long live France! Down with the insulters! To the door with Jews! Death to Zola!” Zola appealed, but was defeated again, and fled to England to avoid jail.
On the face of it, Zola and the Dreyfusards had suffered a massive defeat – the law was brought down against Dreyfus’s highest-profile supporter, and Dreyfus himself was still suffering on Devil’s Island. However, where both Dreyfus’s and Esterhazy’s trials were conducted in the secrecy of a closed military tribunal, Zola’s took place in a public court. Every day, the newspapers of France summarised the trial’s proceedings, and this 1898 edition shows that the full text of the court records had been translated into English and published in New York not long after it took place. Thus, a great deal of new information had been made available to the public, and while it did not convince the jury, it did, over time, convince an increasingly large proportion of the French population. Civil unrest increased, and a new left-wing government was formed in response to the crisis. In September 1899, the new president, Émile Loubet, pardoned Dreyfus, who was released after almost five years of imprisonment for a crime he had not committed. Finally, in July 1906, a civilian court of appeals formally cleared Dreyfus of all charges; he was reinstated as a captain and made a knight of the Legion of Honour. The Radical governments which emerged from the Dreyfus Affair would inaugurate a strict policy of secularism in the French government, which has survived to the present day – realising, ironically, some of the deepest fears of the anti-Dreyfusards.
Among many other things, the Dreyfus Affair illustrates the importance of public access to information, and conversely the danger of its restriction, without which the French military could not have conducted its closed, unfair trial of Dreyfus in the first place. It was only when the truth became public property, through the Zola trial and subsequent revelations, that justice could be done. It is a wonderful thing, therefore, to have been able to contribute to the free, maximally-accessible publication of these records through Project Gutenberg. I hope that, if you read them, they remind you of the value of the work that Distributed Proofreaders does in bringing such texts to light. As Zola wrote in “J’Accuse!”, the letter that triggered his trial, “when truth is buried in the earth, it accumulates there, and assumes so mighty an explosive power that, on the day when it bursts forth, it hurls everything into the air.”
This post was contributed by Thomas Frost, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who post-processed The Trial of Emile Zola.