Friday, 20 May 2011

J'accuse and the Dreyfus Affair - Seminar Summary

The Dreyfus Affair is a story of social injustice, following the wrongful conviction of French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus.

After secret documents were found in a waste paper bin at a German embassy, it became obvious that the French had a spy at the facility. The documents that were discovered discussed the future plans of the French military. Somebody in the French army was taking documents and handing this information to the Germans.

The French army framed Dreyfus, claiming it was him that was passing around the sensitive information. There were many reasons why Dreyfus was chosen to take the blame, but the most obvious was due to an overwhelming sense of anti-Semitism from the army. The fact Dreyfus was a particularly clever individual also made him seem suspect. After being pronounced guilty of treason, Dreyfus was sent to 'Devil's Island' in 1894, which remained part of the French penal colony until 1952.

A writer and novelist named Emile Zola (Born 1840) was present at Dreyfus' trial, and was disgusted and horrified by the way the French captain had been framed. This was ultimately his reasoning behind writing the famous 'J'accuse' article - to expose the Government for their actions. Unfortunately, Zola was tried and convicted of libel as a result of J'accuse, which saw him fully identify those he felt were guilty.

J'accuse was published in 1898, on the front page of 'L'aurore', a Paris daily paper. It was a massively controversial article, because it exposed the government for falsely accusing Dreyfus and knowing that they were doing so. The article was addressed to the President of France, Felix Faure. After its publication, the article became one of global interest. J'accuse is a fantastic example of how Journalism can be used to spread a message to the public and expose the truth. As Zola states himself, 'my duty is to speak, I do not wish to be an accomplice'. This phrase helps convey the freedom of the press and the power of Journalism.


Eventually, an officer decided to look further into the case in the search for truth, and found evidence suggesting Dreyfus had indeed been wrongfully accused. The identity of the real culprit was discovered - Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Because of Zola's article, Dreyfus was allowed to leave Devil's Island. However, the duration the writer had spent at the penal colony meant he returned a broken man, unable to speak properly and physically and emotionally exhausted.

Throughout J'accuse, Zola personifies France, with phrases such as 'but what spot of mud on your name' and 'France has this stain on her cheek'. These common references to France being left tarnished after the affair give an insight into Zola's attitude towards the situation, also suggesting that such marks can be fixed by exposing the truth.

Addressing the President directly, Zola suggests that the affair will not only affect the reputation of France, but also its government. He writes: "History will write that it was under your presidency that such a social crime could be committed". Zola suggests that the president will be remembered as the person who allowed such a 'social crime' to take place, without making any attempt to bring justice to the ill-accused.

On a personal note, I think Zola is a man to be greatly respected for his courage. He clearly knew of the implications of publishing J'accuse, yet chose to go ahead with it anyway due to his overwhelming belief that framing an innocent man was wrong and the truth needed to be known. The writer is more than willing to directly name those he holds responsible. For example, he refers to Lieutenant Colonel du Clam as 'nefarious' (Wicked, cruel, immoral) and then goes on to speak of him as 'the first culprit in the appalling miscarriage of Justice'. J'accuse concludes with Zola listing those who he feels play a key role in Drefus' false conviction.

Zola points out that there are a number of people who are not only corrupt, but manage to maintain a position of great authority. Such figures include the minister of war, General Mercier ('whose intelligence seems poor') the head of high command, General De Boisdeffre ('who appears to have yielded to his clerical position') and assistant manager of high command, General Gonse ('whose conscience puts up with many things'). Of these characters, Zola argues Du Paty de Clam is the most influential and therefore the most corrupt. He has the power to shape the actions of the other individuals mentioned.

Many links can be drawn between the Dreyfus affair and the case of Stephen Lawrence. Stephen was a black 18-year-old student who was the victim of a racial attack. He was stabbed to death whilst waiting for a bus on the evening of 22 April, 1993. The Daily Mail picked up on the case 4 years later and published the names of five men who they believed were Stephen's killers. The headline used by the newspaper read: "Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us." Obviously, the clear link between the Mail's article and J'accuse is that in both cases the people the writers held responsible were positively identified and challenged.

The Daily Mail clearly identified the men they believed were behind Stephen's murder

Below the Mail's headline was a picture of the 5 men who had been named. To this day, the men identified have not sued the paper. The case of Stephen Lawrence led to alterations in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Following the changes, it was decided retrials would be allowed if there was 'new and compelling evidence' to justify doing so.

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