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February 7: Émile Zola on Trial

February 7, 2013

French writer Émile Zola, a major force in the liberalization of France, was brought to trial for libel on this date in 1898 for having published “J’Accuse”, an open letter to French President Félix Faure that charged the French government with anti-Semitism and deceit in the conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, on charges of treason. The letter, published on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, was intended to draw charges of libel so that the supporters of Dreyfus would be able to gather evidence and make the public aware of the miscarriage of justice in Dreyfus’ case. Zola was convicted as charged, sentenced to jail and removed from the Légion d’honneur. He fled to England, where he continued to defend Dreyfus, and died four years later from carbon monoxide poisoning generated by a blocked chimney. (Decades later, a Parisian roofer claimed on his deathbed to have shut off the chimney for political reasons.) In 1906, Dreyfus was completely exonerated by the Supreme Court of France. He lived until 1935.

“If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” —Émile Zola