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Disclaimer (#3)Document.png open letter  by Émile Zola  to Félix Faure dated 1898-01-13
Subjects: Dreyfus Affair
Source: 'L'Aurore'

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Would you allow me, grateful as I am for the kind reception you once extended to me, to show my concern about maintaining your well-deserved prestige and to point out that your star which, until now, has shone so brightly, risks being dimmed by the most shameful and indelible of stains?

Unscathed by vile slander, you have won the hearts of all. You are radiant in the patriotic glory of our country's alliance with Russia, you are about to preside over the solemn triumph of our World Fair, the jewel that crowns this great century of labour, truth, and freedom. But what filth this wretched Dreyfus affair has cast on your name — I was about to write 'reign'. A court-martial, under orders, has just dared to acquit a certain Esterhazy, a supreme insult to all truth and justice. And now the image of France is sullied by this filth, and history shall record that it was under your presidency that this crime against society was committed.

As they have dared, so shall I dare. Dare to tell the truth, for I have pledged to tell the full and complete truth if the normal channels of justice failed to do so. My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be complicit. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit.

And it is to you, Sir, that I shall proclaim this truth, with all the force born of the revulsion of an honest man. Knowing your integrity, I am convinced that you are unaware of the truth. But to whom if not to you, the first magistrate of the country, shall I reveal the vile baseness of the real culprits?

First of all, the truth about Dreyfus' trial and conviction:

The ringleader behind it all is one evil man, Lt Colonel du Paty de Clam, who was at that point just a Major. He is the entire Dreyfus case, and will not all come to light until an honest enquiry firmly establishes his actions and responsibilities. He appears to be the shadiest and most complex of figures, spinning outlandish intrigues, indulging in the sort of thing one sees in cheap thriller novels: stolen documents, anonymous letters, meetings in deserted locations, mysterious women scuttling around at night, peddling damning evidence. He was the one who came up with the scheme of dictating the text of the bordereau to Dreyfus; he was the one who dreamt up the idea of studying him in a mirror-lined room. And he was the one that Major Forzinetti tells us had a shuttered lantern that he intended to shine at the accused man while he slept, and thus jolt a confession out of him in the flash of bright light. I need not say all: seek more and ye shall find. I am simply stating that Major du Paty de Clam, as the officer of justice charged with the preliminary investigation of the Dreyfus case, is — chronologically and in terms of responsibility — the prime culprit in the horrid miscarriage of justice that has been committed.

The bordereau had already been for some time in the hands of Colonel Sandherr, Head of the Intelligence Office, who has since died of a paralytic stroke. Information was 'leaked', papers were disappearing, as they are still doing to this day; and, as the search for the author of the bordereau progressed, little by little, an a priori assumption developed that it could only have come from an officer of the General Staff, and furthermore, an artillery officer. This interpretation, wrong on both counts, shows how superficially the bordereau was analysed, for a logical examination shows that it could only have come from an infantry officer.

So an in-house search was conducted. Handwriting samples were compared, as if this were some family affair, a traitor within the War Office to be caught unawares and then expelled. And, although I have no desire to dwell on a story that is only partly known, Major du Paty de Clam entered on the scene as soon as the slightest suspicion fell upon Dreyfus. From that moment on, he was the one who invented Dreyfus the traitor, and made this affair his own. He boasted that he would confuse him and make him confess all. Yes, there was of course the Minister of War, General Mercier, a man of apparently mediocre brainpower; and there were also the Chief of Staff, General de Boisdeffre, who appears to have yielded to his own religious bigotry, and the Deputy Chief of Staff, General Gonse, whose conscience permitted many accommodations. But, at the end of the day, it all started with Major du Paty de Clam, who led them on, mesmerised them, for, as an adept of spiritualism and the occult, he conversed with spirits. Nobody would ever believe the experiments to which he subjected the unfortunate Dreyfus, the traps he set for him, the wild investigations, the monstrous fantasies, the whole torturous insanity.

Ah, that first trial! What a nightmare it is for all who know it in its true details. Major du Paty de Clam had Dreyfus arrested and placed in solitary confinement. He ran to Mme Dreyfus, terrorised her, telling her that her husband was done for if she talked. Meanwhile, the unfortunate Dreyfus was tearing his hair out and proclaiming his innocence. And this is how the case proceeded, like some fifteenth-century chronicle, shrouded in mystery, with outlandish and intricate expedients, all based on one infantile charge, that stupid bordereau. This was not only a bit of cheap trickery but also the most brazen fraud imaginable, for almost all of these notorious secrets were actually baseless. I dwell on this, because this is the germ of it all, whence the true crime would emerge, this horrible miscarriage of justice that is afflicting France. I would like to point out how this travesty was made possible, how it sprang out of the machinations of Major du Paty de Clam, how Generals Mercier, de Boisdeffre and Gonse became so caught up in this miscarriage that they would later feel compelled to impose it as a holy truth that could not even be discussed. At first they were merely careless and moronic. They seem at worst to have given in to the prejudices and the religious fervour of their milieu. In the end, they allowed idiocy to prevail.

Then we see Dreyfus appearing before the court martial. Behind the closed doors, the utmost secrecy is demanded. Had a traitor opened the border to the enemy and led the Kaiser straight to Notre-Dame the measures of secrecy and silence could not have been tighter. The public was astounded; rumours flew of the most horrible, monstruous, treasonous acts, lies that were an affront to our history. The public, naturally, was taken in. No punishment could be too harsh. The people clamoured for the traitor to be publicly stripped of his rank and demanded to see him eaten up by remorse on his rock of infamy. Could these things be true, these unspeakable acts, these deeds so dangerous that they must be carefully hidden behind closed doors to keep Europe from going up in flames? No! They were nothing but the wild and demented fabrications of Major du Paty de Clam, a cover-up of the silliest pulp-fiction fantasies imaginable. To be convinced of this one need only read carefully the accusation as it was presented before the court martial.

What a flimsy accusation! The fact that someone could have been convicted on this charge is an incredible iniquity. I defy decent men to read it without their hearts leaping in indignation and crying in revulsion, at the thought of the undeserved sentence being served out there on Devil's Island. He knew several languages: a crime! He carried no compromising papers: a crime! He would occasionally visit his country of origin: a crime! He was hard-working, and strove to be well informed: a crime! He did not become flustered: a crime! He became flustered: a crime! And how childish the language is, how vacuous the accusation! We also heard talk of fourteen charges but we only find at the end of the day, the one stemming from the bordereau, and we learn that even there the handwriting experts could not agree. One of them, Mr Gobert, has faced military pressure because he dared to come to a conclusion other than the desired one. We were told also that twenty-three officers had testified against Dreyfus. We still do not know what questions they were asked, but it is certain that not all of them implicated him. It should be noted, furthermore, that all of them came from the War Office. The whole case had been handled as an internal affair, among insiders. And we must not forget this: members of the General Staff had sought this trial to begin with and had passed judgement. And now they were passing judgement once again.

So all that remained of the case was the bordereau, on which the experts had not been able to agree. It is said that within the council chamber the judges were naturally leaning toward acquittal. And so at that point, one can understand the stubborn desperation with which, in order to justify a guilty verdict, they are now claiming there is a secret, damning document — a document that cannot be shown, which makes everything all right, which is invisible and unknowable but we must all religiously believe in. I deny the existence of this document; with all my strength, I deny it! Some trivial note, maybe, about some easy women, wherein a certain D… was becoming too insistent, no doubt some demanding husband who felt he wasn't getting a good enough price for the use of his wife. But a document concerning national defence that could not be produced without provoking a declaration of war tomorrow? No! No! It is a lie, all the more odious and cynical in that its perpetrators are getting off scot-free without even admitting it. They have stirred up all of France, they have hidden behind the understandable commotion they had set off, they sealed their lips while troubling our hearts and perverting our spirit. I know of no greater crime against the nation.

These, Sir, are the facts that explain how this miscarriage of justice came about; The evidence of Dreyfus's character, his affluence, the lack of motive and his continued affirmation of innocence combine to show that he is the victim of the lurid imagination of Major du Paty de Clam, the religious circles surrounding him, and the 'dirty Jew' obsession that is the scourge of our time.

And now we turn to the Esterhazy case. Three years have passed, many consciences are profoundly troubled, become anxious, investigate, and end up convinced that Dreyfus is innocent.

I shall not chronicle these doubts and the subsequent conclusion reached by Mr Scheurer-Kestner. But, while he was conducting his own investigation, major events were occurring at headquarters. Colonel Sandherr had died and Lt Colonel Picquart had succeeded him as Head of the Intelligence Office. It was in this capacity, in the exercise of his office, that Lt Colonel Picquart came into possession of a telegram addressed to Major Esterhazy by an agent of a foreign power. His express duty was to open an enquiry. What is certain is that he never once acted against the will of his superiors. Thus, he submitted his suspicions to his hierarchical senior officers, first General Gonse, then General de Boisdeffre, and finally General Billot, who had succeeded General Mercier as Minister of War. That famous much-discussed Picquart file was none other than the Billot file, by which I mean the file created by a subordinate for his minister, which probably can still be found at the War Office. The investigation lasted from May to September 1896, and what must be said loud and clear is that General Gonse was at that time convinced that Esterhazy was guilty and that Generals de Boisdeffre and Billot had no doubt that the handwriting on the famous bordereau was Esterhazy's. This was the definitive conclusion of Lt Colonel Picquart's investigation. But feelings were running high, for the conviction of Esterhazy would inevitably lead to a retrial of Dreyfus, an eventuality that the General Staff wanted at all cost to avoid.

There must have been at this point a moment of psychological anguish. Note that, so far, General Billot was in no way compromised. Being freshly appointed, he had the opportunity to bring out the truth. He did not dare, no doubt in terror of public opinion, certainly also for fear of implicating the whole General Staff, General de Boisdeffre, and General Gonse, not to mention the subordinates. So he hesitated for a brief moment of struggle between his conscience and what he believed to be the interest of the military. Once that moment passed, it was already too late. He had committed himself and he was compromised. From that point on, his responsibility only grew, he took on the crimes of others, he became as guilty as they, if not more so, for he was in a position to bring about justice and did nothing. Can you understand this: for the last year General Billot, Generals Gonse and de Boisdeffre have known that Dreyfus is innocent, and they have kept this terrible thing to themselves? And these people sleep at night, and have wives and children they love!

Lt Colonel Picquart had carried out his duty as an honest man. He kept insisting to his superiors in the name of justice. He even begged them, telling them how impolitic it was to dally in the face of the terrible storm that was brewing and that would break when the truth became known. This was the language that Mr Scheurer-Kestner later used with General Billot as well, appealing to his patriotism to take charge of the case so that it would not degenerate into a public disaster. But no! The crime had been committed and the General Staff could no longer admit to it. And so Lt Colonel Picquart was sent away on official duty. He got sent further and further away until he found himself in Tunisia, where they tried eventually to reward his courage with an assignment that would certainly have got him massacred, in the very same area where the Marquis de Morès had been killed. He was not in disgrace, indeed: General Gonse even maintained a friendly correspondence with him. It is just that there are certain secrets that are better left alone.

In Paris, the unstoppable truth was marching on, and we know how the long-awaited storm broke. Mr Mathieu Dreyfus denounced Major Esterhazy as the real author of the bordereau just as Mr Scheurer-Kestner was submitting to the Minister of Justice a request for the review of the trial. This is where Major Esterhazy comes in. Witnesses say that he was at first in a panic, ready to kill himself or run away. Then all of a sudden, emboldened, he amazed Paris by the violence of his attitude. Rescue had come, in the form of an anonymous letter warning of enemy actions, and a mysterious woman had even gone to the trouble one night of slipping him a paper, stolen from headquarters, that would save him. Here I cannot help seeing the handiwork of Lt Colonel du Paty de Clam, with the trademark fruits of his fertile imagination. His achievement, Dreyfus's conviction, was in danger, and he surely was determined to protect it. A retrial would mean that this whole extraordinary saga, so extravagant, so tragic, with its denouement on Devil's Island, would fall apart! This he could not allow to happen. From then on, it was a duel between Lt Colonel Picquart and Lt Colonel du Paty de Clam, one with his face visible, the other masked. The next step would take them both to civil court. It came down, once again, to the General Staff protecting itself, not wanting to admit its crime, an abomination that has been growing by the hour.

In disbelief, people wondered who Commander Esterhazy's protectors were. First of all, behind the scenes, Lt Colonel du Paty de Clam was the one who had concocted the whole story, who kept it going, tipping his hand with his crazy methods. Next General de Boisdeffre, then General Gonse, and finally, General Billot himself were all pulled into the effort to get the Major acquitted, for acknowledging Dreyfus's innocence would make the War Office collapse under the weight of public contempt. And the astounding outcome of this great situation was that the one decent man involved, Lt Colonel Picquart who, alone, had done his duty, was to become the victim, the one who got ridiculed and punished. O justice, what horrible despair grips our hearts? It was even claimed that he himself was the forger, that he had fabricated the letter-telegram in order to destroy Esterhazy. But, good God, why? To what end? Find a motive. Was he, too, on the Jews' payroll? The best part of it is that Picquart was himself an anti-Semite. Yes! We have before us the ignoble spectacle of men who are sunken in debts and crimes being hailed as innocent, whereas the honour of a man whose life is spotless is being vilely attacked: A society that sinks to that level has fallen into decay.

The Esterhazy affair, sir, thus comes down to this: a guilty man is being passed off as innocent. For almost two months we have been following this nasty business hour by hour. I am being brief, for this is but the abridged version of a story whose sordid pages will some day be written out in full. And so we have seen General de Pellieux, and then Major Ravary conduct a villanous enquiry from which criminals emerge glorified and honest people sullied. And then a court martial was convened.

How could anyone expect a court-martial to undo what another court-martial had done?

I am not even talking about the way the judges were hand-picked. Doesn't the overriding idea of discipline, which is the lifeblood of these soldiers, itself undermine their capacity for even-handedness? Discipline means obedience. When the Minister of War, the commander in chief, proclaims, in public and to the acclamation of the nation's representatives, the absolute authority of a previous verdict, how can you expect a court-martial to rule against him? That is not possible with the hierarchy as it is. General Billot directed the judges in his preliminary remarks, and they proceeded to judgement as they would to battle, unquestioningly. The preconceived opinion they brought to the bench was obviously the following: 'Dreyfus was found guilty for the crime of treason by a court-martial; he therefore is guilty and we, a court-martial, cannot declare him innocent. On the other hand, we know that acknowledging Esterhazy's guilt would be tantamount to proclaiming Dreyfus innocent.' There was no way for them to escape this line of thought.

So they rendered an iniquitous verdict that will forever weigh upon our courts-martial and will henceforth cast a shadow of suspicion on all their decrees. The first court-martial was perhaps unintelligent; the second one is inescapably criminal. Their excuse, I repeat, is that the supreme chief had spoken, declaring the previous judgement incontrovertible, holy and above mere mortals. How, then, could subordinates contradict it? We are told of the honour of the army; we are supposed to love and respect it. Ah, yes, of course, an army that would rise to the first threat, that would defend French soil, that army is the nation itself, and for that army we have nothing but devotion and respect. But this is not about that army, whose dignity we are seeking, in our cry for justice. What is at stake is the sword, the master that will one day, perhaps, be forced upon us. Obediently kiss the hilt of that sword, that god? No!

As I have shown, the Dreyfus case was a matter internal to the War Office: an officer of the General Staff, denounced by his co-officers of the General Staff, sentenced under pressure from the Chiefs of Staff. Once again, he cannot be found innocent without the whole General Staff being guilty. Thus, by all means imaginable, by press campaigns, by official communications, by influence, the War Office covered up for Esterhazy only to condemn Dreyfus once again. The government of this Republic should give that den of Jesuits — as General Billot himself calls it — a good sweeping out! Where is that truly strong, judiciously patriotic administration that will dare to clean house and start afresh? How many people I know who, faced with the possibility of war, tremble in anguish knowing to what hands we are entrusting our nation's defence! And what a nest of vile intrigues, gossip, and destruction that sacred sanctuary that decides the nation's fate has become! We are horrified by the terrible light the Dreyfus affair has cast upon it all, this human sacrifice of an unfortunate man, a 'dirty Jew'. Ah, what a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial, tyrannical practices! What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming back down their throats the people's cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext!

Indeed, it is a crime to have relied on the most squalid elements of the press, and to have entrusted Esterhazy's defence to the vermin of Paris, who are now gloating over the defeat of justice and plain truth. It is a crime that those people who wish to see a generous France take her place as leader of all the free and just nations are being accused of bringing turmoil to the country, denounced by the very plotters who are conniving so shamelessly to foist this miscarriage of justice on the entire world. It is a crime to lie to the public, to twist public opinion to insane lengths in the service of the vilest death-dealing machinations. It is a crime to poison the minds of the meek and the humble, to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance, by appealing to that odious anti-Semitism that, unchecked, will destroy the freedom-loving France of Human Rights. It is a crime to exploit patriotism in the service of hatred, and it is, finally, a crime to ensconce the sword as the modern god, whereas all science is toiling to achieve the coming era of truth and justice. Truth and justice, so ardently longed for! How terrible it is to see them trampled, unrecognised and ignored! I can feel Mr Scheurer-Kestner's soul withering and I believe that one day he will even feel sorry for having failed, when questioned by the Senate, to spill all and lay out the whole mess. A man of honour, as he had been all his life, he believed that the truth would speak for itself, especially since it appeared to him plain as day. Why stir up trouble, especially since the sun would soon shine? It is for this serene trust that he is now being so cruelly punished. The same goes for Lt Colonel Picquart, who, guided by the highest sentiment of dignity, did not wish to publish General Gonse's correspondence. These scruples are all the more honourable since he remained mindful of discipline, while his superiors were dragging his name through the mud and casting suspicion on him, in the most astounding and outrageous ways. There are two victims, two decent men, two simple hearts, who left their fates to God, while the devil was taking charge. Regarding Lt Col Picquart, even this despicable deed was perpetrated: a French tribunal allowed the statement of the case to become a public indictment of one of the witnesses, accusing him of all sorts of wrongdoing, It then chose to prosecute the case behind closed doors as soon as that witness was brought in to defend himself. I say this is yet another crime, and this crime will stir consciences everywhere. These military tribunals have, decidedly, a most singular idea of justice.

This is the plain truth, Sir, and it is frightful. It will leave a stain on your presidency. I realise that you have no power over this case, and that you are limited by the Constitution and your entourage. You have, nevertheless, your duty as a man, which you will recognise and fulfill. Do not think that I despair of triumphing in the slightest. I repeat with the most vehement conviction: truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it. Today is only the beginning for this case, since it is only today that the positions have been made clear: on one side, the guilty parties, who do not want the light to shine forth, on the other, those who seek justice and who will give their lives to see that light shine. I have said it elsewhere and I repeat it now: when truth is buried underground, it builds up and acquires an explosive force that is destined to blast everything away with it. We shall see whether we have set ourselves up for the most resounding of disasters, yet to come.


But this letter is long, Sir, and it is time to conclude it.

  • I accuse Lt Col du Paty de Clam of being the diabolical creator of this miscarriage of justice — unwittingly, I would like to believe — and of defending this sorry deed, over the last three years, by all manner of ludricrous and evil machinations.
  • I accuse General Mercier of complicity, at least by mental weakness, in one of the greatest inequities of the century.
  • I accuse General Billot of having held in his hands absolute proof of Dreyfus's innocence and covering it up, and making himself guilty of this crime against mankind and justice, as a political expedient and a way for the compromised General Staff to save face.
  • I accuse Gen. de Boisdeffre and Gen. Gonse of complicity in the same crime, the former, no doubt, out of religious prejudice, the latter perhaps out of that esprit de corps that has transformed the War Office into an unassailable holy ark.
  • I accuse Gen. de Pellieux and Major Ravary of conducting a villainous enquiry, by which I mean a monstrously biased one, as attested by the latter in a report that is an imperishable monument to naïve impudence.
  • I accuse the three handwriting experts, Messrs. Belhomme, Varinard and Couard, of submitting reports that were deceitful and fraudulent, unless a medical examination finds them to be suffering from a condition that impairs their eyesight and judgement.
  • I accuse the War Office of using the press, particularly L'Éclair and L'Écho de Paris, to conduct an abominable campaign to mislead the general public and cover up their own wrongdoing.
  • Finally, I accuse the first court-martial of violating the law by convicting the accused on the basis of a document that was kept secret, and I accuse the second court-martial of covering up this illegality, on orders, thus committing the judicial crime of knowingly acquitting a guilty man.

In making these accusations I am aware that I am making myself liable to articles 30 and 31 of the law of 29/7/1881 regarding the press, which makes libel a punishable offence. I expose myself to that risk voluntarily.

As for the people I am accusing, I do not know them, I have never seen them, and I bear them neither ill will nor hatred. To me they are mere entities, agents of harm to society. The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice.

I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul. Let them dare, then, to bring me before a court of law and let the enquiry take place in broad daylight! I am waiting.

With my deepest respect, Sir.

Émile Zola, 13th January 1898