With all eyes on France following recent terrorist attacks against Jews and freedom of speech itself, it is interesting to note that on January 13, 1898, the French writer Emile Zola published his famous open letter, "J’accuse," which set in motion several years of controversy over what turned out to be the framing of an innocent man, Captain Alfred Dreyfus—a Jew, for espionage.
Dreyfus was to spend five years on Devil’s Island before being fully exonerated after several trials and the eventual exposure of high-level corruption within the French army and government. It was an act of free speech – Zola’s "J’accuse" – which questioned the initial verdict, exposing not only errors and inconsistencies during Dreyfus’ first trial and the deep-seated anti-Semitism that made him a scapegoat in the first place.
After publishing "J’accuse," Zola was convicted of libel and had to flee France to avoid imprisonment. Zola eventually died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the poor ventilation of his fireplace. Years later, on his deathbed, a roofer confessed that he had sealed Zola’s chimney, causing the great writer’s death in 1902, four years before Dreyfus was fully exonerated.
It was a very nasty business, all of this. To think about it now is unpleasant. And yet, as France reels over recent tragedies in Paris, one feels that things keep coming round again using different actors wearing different clothes. Which is reason enough, one would think, to appreciate that other Dreyfus, Julia, whose comedic antics take our minds off those things, if only for a moment within which we might breathe some other air - one free of anything save the possibility of humanity to reclaim itself.
There's a lot more to the Dreyfus Affair and Zola's role in exposing it, some of which is included in the Storify slide-presentation below. Click on the link within each slide for more information. Or skip to the end for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose 54th birthday we celebrate on this day.