61A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

The Life of Emile Zola
July 4, 2009 
There is a moment in the 1937 Warner Brothers film The Life of Emile Zola, when the military Chief of Staff who has framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason, admits to the real traitor, “We cannot hold them off much longer.”  By “them,” he is referring to Zola, a civilian government, and a growing legion of truth seekers who know the injustice done to Captain Dreyfus.  The battle is a moral one.  An innocent man has been hastily convicted by a court marshal using secret evidence he is not allowed to see.  Later, the court marshal is found to have erred and the real traitor is uncovered.  But rather than force the French Army to admit the error, the general staff conspires to cover up the truth.   The battle centers not only around a miscarriage of justice - it is provoked by a militant refusal to admit error.  It is, in fact, a battle exploded by man’s deepest, most destructive instinct - his pride.

The action of the general staff  follows the logic of a clique hiding its corruption to avoid dishonoring the institution.  Zola, who takes up the cause of Dreyfus by writing his famous “J’ Accuse!” letter to the President,  is accused himself of defaming the Minister of War, the general staff and the reputation of the army.  In the civil courtroom where the military indignantly defends its name, there are outraged cries for respect.  These are men who selflessly serve their country; to accuse them of wrongdoing is treachery.  It is the appeal to patriotism often used by government.  How dare we question the men and women who put their lives on the line?  How dare we question the integrity of an institution that serves and protects French citizens?  Especially in troubling, insecure times?   The jury is asked to find Zola guilty of libel - a crime punishable by prison and fine.  Complicating the trial is the refusal of the court to hear any testimony about the Dreyfus case - purported to be legally closed.

What is ironic and deeply sad, is the idea that the pursuit of truth would somehow defame the men and women who serve their country.  Is it not the desire of every fallen soldier that their sacrifice resound in the hearts of the living?   Does not justice served, rest in the bodies of those who defend it?  The poet Walt Whitman pays this tribute:

"Give me exhaustless, make me a fountain,
That I exhale love from me wherever I go like a moist perennial dew,
For the ashes of all dead soldiers South or North."

Justice is the very thing soldiers give their lives for.  Truth is the idea that drives good people to battle. The greatest crime in the Dreyfus case is not the miscarriage of justice, but the pre-meditated collusion to cover it up.  And to do so brazenly in a court of law, by invoking the name of the dead and the threat of foreign enemies.  Here is where the treason lies.  In the hands of the powerful who manipulate the truth to hide their prideful crimes.  Paul Muni, playing Zola speaks passionately in his accusation: “One speaks of the honor of the army.  The army, is the people of France themselves!  And the Dreyfus affair is a matter pertaining to that army.  Dreyfus cannot be vindicated without condemning the whole general staff.”  It is a stirring moment on film.  One of the great scenes in cinema; where a passionate speech sums up the longing and frustrations of an entire generation.  It is beautifully acted and it helped bring The Life of Emile Zola, the 1937 Best Picture Academy Award.

What is barely alluded to in the film is the rampant anti-Semitism that pervaded late nineteenth century France and the entire Dreyfus affair.  Dreyfus was the son of a successful Alsace Jewish industrialist.  He studied at private schools and the Ecole Polytechnique, and later chose to enter  the military, rising to the rank of Captain.  News of the first military tribunal in 1894 unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic bigotry led by the popular press and national security right wing.  It pitted militarists and authoritarians against the supporters of Dreyfus.  On the one side was the Jesuit Catholic church, national security establishment, and the anti-Semites in the French Army, on the other side were a few noted academics, libertarians, defenders of human rights and the due process of law.  A glimpse of the truth arrived when Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, head of military intelligence, discovered evidence of the real traitor.  It was Picquart who brought the evidence to the Minister of War who, to save face, engineered a second  military tribunal rigged to acquit the traitor (with forged evidence.) The general staff temporarily avoided discrediting the army and an embarrassing admission of error.   Picquart, unwavering in his honesty, was dismissed to a foreign post and eventually arrested by his superior officers on false charges.

The miscarriage of justice was everywhere in the affair. The military judges allowed secret evidence against Dreyfus, without giving it to the defense - a strict violation of French law.  It turned out the “secret evidence” consisted of documents forged by the general staff.  But Dreyfus was still found guilty and sentenced to life on Devil‘s Island.  There was smug satisfaction in the army and press that a wealthy Jew had been convicted in a military court, perceived to be “less corruptible” than a civilian court.  And in a final shameful outburst during the public degradation of Dreyfus, the mob at the courtyard chanted, “Death to the Jews!” 

There are moments in the lives of some men when they are called by infinite forces to do the thing life always meant them to do.  Emile Zola awakened to the call of justice, and rose to Dreyfus’ defense.  In his fiery letter Zola spells out his reason:

"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!"   Émile Zola, "J'accuse!" 1898

Dreyfus was pardoned by the French President and acquitted of all charges in 1906.  Nearly one hundred years later, the French Army officially acknowledged its guilt in the affair.  And at a 1998 memorial to honor the publication of "J'accuse!”  -  French President Jacques Chirac said:
"… let us never forget the courage of a great writer who, taking every risk, putting his tranquility, his fame, even his life in peril, dared to pick up his pen and place his talent in the service of truth."  — Jacques Chirac 1998

It reminds us of the most admirable moments in the most admirable of Hollywood films, and their power to change the hearts of men.  Like Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath:

“I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there…”

The good always are.


Truth. She is Not Drowning, Eduoard Debat-Ponsan 1898, Courtesy the Jewish Museum of New York