It might not be the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time, but the J’Accuse letter resonates all the way to the dark heart of the 20th Century like nothing else. Antisemitism, inter-European rivalries, the politics of industrial hate – it stands as both a grim foretelling of these forces and an example of the moral and intellectual forces that would stand against them.
Zola is one of my favourite authors (I’ve written quite a bit about why this is over here – and may even finish it someday) but by the late 1890s he was definitely past his best, his last truly great novel, Germinal, being published ten years earlier. His work was always political, both explicitly and in its smallest detail, but central to his politics was an empathy for individual people and the rotten things the world throws at them.
Alfred Dreyfus certainly had a harder time of it that almost anyone. Born into a Jewish family in the forever-contested region of Alsace, he worked his way up the French army ranks before being found to be a convenient scapegoat when military secrets were leaked to the Germans.
History has to judge Zola’s intervention as a success. Despite the havoc it caused initially, it was clear that Dreyfus was innocent, and in 1906, already out of jail, he received his pardon. Zola was less fortunate, though. After fleeing to England, he died from carbon monoxide poisioning from a blocked chimney, the blocking quite possibly done by a chimney sweep who had been paid to kill him.
There is a fairly good In Our Time podcast about the Dreyfus affair to be found here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n1l95 – and the whole text can be found in English here – https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:J%27accuse…!