The Accused



The Accused[1]

To feel the continual and irresistible necessity to shout out at the top of your lungs what you think, especially when you are the only one to think it, even at the risk of spoiling the joys of your life, that is what my passion has been. I am all bloody from it, but I love it and if I am worth anything, it is from that and that alone.

Emile Zola, Une campagne, 1882.


The man is in front of me, in his house—this house that they took so much trouble to point out to the raging mad, specifying the address, adding a drawing to the text, describing the grounds and the shortest way to get here and then undoubtedly accomplish their inspired task…

The house is beautiful because it is spacious and furnished with relics. If there is luxury here, it is the luxury of art and therefore it does not shock me since it remains inaccessible to the vulgar and to the “bores,” to the mind-starved who have nothing but money.

And then if, little by little, in the commonplace atmosphere, under the patina of the years, everything is harmonized, you really feel that the nest was nonetheless built one twig at a time and that these beautiful or rare things, for the most part ancient, are not a mass legacy that used to surround the very modest cradle where the simple employee of the publisher Hachette was born.

Success came gradually and it was during his travels or after every triumph that he acquired here or there some marvel without any intrinsic value but artistically priceless in the eyes of collectors.

But each of these trinkets has seen centuries and to the detriment of their wholeness has lived through warring and peaceful generations, events just the mention of which leaves us dreamy.

Oh, no, this is not the house of an oaf or a philistine or a churchwarden! And no setting as much as this speaking, living mosaic of a background, attesting to the emptiness of ancestral follies and the survival only of a philosophy superior to the ephemeral deeds of humans, no setting could be more fitting to the ascetic vision that my eyes scrutinize and itemize—in a daze!


Ascetic? Zola? Well, yes. Now, don’t be too quick to smile or shout out. I knew the early Zola, the struggling, tired man of labor and reflection, who powerfully and weightily plowed his way with heavy steps, massive shoulders and strained kidneys.

I also knew the later Zola, thinner, successful, in his glorious and dangerous period when the militant arms, hanging on the wall, seemed reduced to being just a trophy, when his ardor also seemed numbed and when his thought was in danger of turning bourgeois.

As undeniable a master as he was, I still had some bones of contention with him. Let’s not fool ourselves: I am no sycophant, no blind, unconditional admirer. In many of his works there are passages that shock me, being a woman, and about which I would express my opinion much more freely if it was the day to climb up the Capitol. But every time I close one of his books, in reviewing my impressions, my enthusiasm so far surpasses any disappointment that the latter is left an insignificant trifle.

Yes, I did not like Adèle’s childbirth in Pot-Bouille [1882]—but what were these ten pages after the three hundred others of admirable satire against the caste in power! Yes, in Germinal [1885] there were, perhaps, some useless observations—but what a plea on behalf of poverty and the poor beasts of the firedamp burden! Yes, in La Terre [1887] also some things repulsed me—but the hail, the harvest, the rain, the hay, all the fumes from the earth, all the steam from the water, all the winds from the sky, through the power of the word we savored the mirage and really felt it. There is only “Jesus Christ”[2] that I remained adamant about… and saddened by. Even if there really were a man who bore such a name, we should not give it to him and offend so many loving, believing souls, puerile if you want, but in the sense of respect, faith and love!


Therefore, I am not blinded by passion or hypnotized by any unbridled, limitless devotion. I am the master of my judgment; I discuss; I appreciate—no fetishism fetters the exercise of my free will and the spirit of inquiry that is constantly awake in me.

And you should believe me when I say that this new Zola whose facial expressions I watched, whose tone of voice I listened to, revealed himself and asserted himself such as I had never known him before.

Oh, there is nothing prophetic about his beard and no frenzy shakes his body. He is not violent and he is not hateful. Whoever has described him with such rude profanities has lied. On the contrary, he is simplicity and serenity itself.   He did what he believed was his duty… and he therefore has what is always present with such certitude: peace of mind. And without solemnity—with smiling, indulgent friendliness, barely tinged with melancholy.

But his big, clear, golden brown eyes behind the pince-nez radiate the inner flame of his conviction. And his deep, harmonious voice, determined and discreet, is stamped with irresistible persuasion.

While he speaks, sitting calmly, envisioning all the personal responsibilities of his act and ready to suffer everything, an amusing detail strikes me in this unraveler of enigmas: his nose!

It is not nice and pretty. It is not ugly either. Anyway, it is not stubby or ridiculous. There is just a cleft at the end like in the Braque Saint Germain, those hunting dogs of superior race. “A sign of cynicism!” certain idiots I know would shout out. But I do not have the time to think about them. I am listening to, now eagerly interested in the beginning of the adventure: how Zola the triumphant, acclaimed, rich and peaceful, decided to jump in… headfirst.

It did not come from hearing the nightingale sing—but almost!

One evening he was visiting another person’s house when someone came in who had attended Dreyfus’ degradation that morning. The story was told by the eyewitness in such rich detail and such visional bitterness, maybe also with such satisfaction, that the writer’s spirit rose up against it. A gust of pity, like a gust of incense, infused his soul. “A man alone, even guilty, against all those men, abandoned to spitting and hissing!”

But since the verdict seemed right, given without hatred or fear, in absolute certitude, it could only have been a fleeting impression. Zola thought no more about it, or not much, for three years. Chance had to fall upon him in the form of Scheurer-Kestner and other people whose names I forget, concerning proof and evidence, for his conviction to be settled, inflexible and invincible.

He and some others faced with insults and defiance became madly obsessed with bringing out this evidence and giving the proof—and these people were treated like Judas, like spies and traitors, corrupted. They knew self-sacrifice, haughty courage, the ultimate patriotism, of not yielding to temptation, of not justifying themselves at the expense of the very people who were insulting them. Among the latter were some who knew the truth and who gambled on the dilemma to shut their opponents up. Either stay quiet, tolerate the outrage, bear through the ordeal until the end and maintain your stoical virtue, or answer to it and become beggars, try to win at such a price!

Ah, how I as a wife and mother would like them to stay quiet!


Now Zola is about to appear before the court: acquitted or convicted he will continue his way toward a goal from which nothing can turn him away. He knows everything that is said and everything that is plotted, what meetings have been set up and what individuals have been posted. Not he but Labori built up the caseload of threats. And for the first time in court, seeing that he has been in no previous trial, he will meet Madame Dreyfus and Mathieu Dreyfus whom he has never seen. No one has interceded for him, on his behalf, and almost everyone involved is French of the old breed and Christian of the old school.

But what does all this matter? No embarrassing truth is accepted—and that is how the falsehoods that the gullible abuse are created today.

And whereas no one is begging foreigners “to get mixed up in their business,” I who have seen the international protests in favor of the Canadian Riel, the Russian Zasulich, the Cossack Atchinof, the Spaniards of Montjuïc[3], etc, etc., I am thinking of what intellectual Europe thinks about him whom only a part of France—oh, a very small part!—does not know. Tolstoy, for Russia, supports him; the Dutch Domela Nieuwenhuis wrote to him, “The accusation that you suffer in the name of violated justice marks you out as a great person”; the Dane Bjornson wrote to him, “How much I envy you today! How much I would like to be in your place so I could do service to homeland and to humanity like you are doing”; the Englishman Christie Murray applauds him; the American Mark Twain said in the New York Herald, “I am filled with a deep and boundless respect and admiration for him”; the Italian Carducci, the Victor Hugo of the Peninsula, wrote his name at the top of an address bearing six thousand signatures; the women of Hungary “to the immortal apostle of truth” wrote that his letter to France “found a powerful echo in the hearts of all civilized people.”

Here there are some people demanding the exile of Aristides or the dungeon of Torquato Tasso for him!

Far from bringing them to resipiscence[4], this luminous levee exasperates them. They have forgotten those famous verses of a patriot who was once a minister but who nevertheless wrote:

There are no more seas or steps or rivers

That limit the heritage of humanity:

The limits of the mind are the sole frontiers,

The world, lighting up, rises to unity.

My homeland is there where France beams,

Wherever its genius bedazzles man!

I am a fellow citizen of everyone who deems

“The truth, that is my homeland!”

Thus concluded de Lamartine. Thus can we conclude today. Escorting the Accused, the greatest minds of the civilized world will appear in court. Let them be judged!


[1] February 5 1898, included in Vers la lumière 1900.

[2] The name of a character in La Terre.

[3] Louis Riel (1844-1885), a founder of Manitoba and leader of the native Métis people who was executed for treason in 1885; Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), Marxist writer and revolutionary who had shot a Russian colonel; Nikolai Atchinof (1856-?) led a Greek orthodox expedition into French territories around Egypt and defied the authorities; Anarchist supporters were executed at the Montjuïc fortress in Barcelona in 1897.

[4] Recalling them to their senses.


17-The Dreyfus Affair Begins



17-The Dreyfus Affair Begins

Toward the end of the century, in spite of the aggressive repression by the Lois Scélérates, Séverine kept busy with her columns for various papers, but her collaborations were certainly not appreciated by many radicals on the left. Even moderate liberals could accuse her of contradiction when she was writing for a monarchist paper like Le Gaulois or the fashionable press like Gil Blas, even though her principles were never sacrificed. Educated in the Vallès school of journalism she was ready to defend the victims of injustice in whatever venue was available as long as she was given complete freedom in her writing. That was how she ended up contributing to Drumont’s anti-Semite paper Libre Parole. More than identifying herself as a follower of this of that school of thought or staying cooped up with the right people, more than being a rebel just for the sake of it, she clung to the cause, representing the dispossessed, fighting for the oppressed in any and every field she found. Plus, she had to earn a living. Her husband, Adrien Guebhardt, living in the south of France, did not support her and her lover, Georges de Labruyère, was more often given money than giving.

At the end 1894, while Paris was busy worrying about the anarchist bombs and the assassination of President Carnot, another crime, a seemingly clear-cut treachery slipped into the papers. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jewish officer to be admitted to the General Staff, was arrested on October 15 for spying on behalf of Germany. The case hinged on a document that had been found in a trash can at the Kaiser’s embassy in Paris and that was identified as his handwriting. The trial was swift and inept and on December 22 he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dreyfus, of course, claimed his innocence and through his family found a supporting friend in the journalist Bernard Lazare, but they remained alone and isolated in their appeals. Their tenacity, on the other hand, was unstoppable.

Séverine, like everyone else, did not doubt Dreyfus’ guilt, but she did raise her voice against two injustices: once when he was refused a retrial and a second time for the ignoble behavior of the uniforms when they shipped him off to Devil’s Island on January 20 1895. See, there were reporters present when an officer reached over a policeman and smacked Dreyfus on the head with his sword. The bleeding, defenseless prisoner staggered on, unaided by anyone. Séverine was indignant and condemned the act in L’Eclair, cowardice being one of the things she hated most in the world. But this came as no surprise to the public since it was from “Our Lady with the Tear in Her Eye.” Dreyfus’ wife, at least, appreciated it and asked to see her as she was trying to rally support to prove his innocence. Séverine never answered the request, but she never regretted it; “there was too much money in their house,” too bourgeois for her liking; and besides she still had other fish to fry, other battles to fight. There was Armenia and Cuba and the insurrections in Algeria, not to mention the continuing battle of the disinherited at home in France.

Bernard Lazare and the Dreyfus family, especially his brother Mathieu, did not give up the fight and their determination paid off in more than one way. Firstly, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through France and split the citizens into two camps, the Dreyfusards who supported them and the anti-Dreyfusards, anti-Semites and monarchists who were pitted against them. Secondly, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, the new director of the intelligence service, scrutinized the case and became interested in the figure of Major Esterhazy, an officer up to his neck in debts. Another document was found in the German Embassy that matched the handwriting of Dreyfus’ condemning evidence but it was obviously written by Esterhazy. If this truth came out it would discredit the army, a few high-ranking officers in particular, and strain the already uneasy relations with Germany. Therefore, Picquart was shipped off to Tunisia and thus military honor was saved. Except that before leaving Picquart confided his secret to the vice president of the Senate Auguste Scheuer-Kestner who assured him that Dreyfus would see his day in court across from Esterhazy. And so he did. Another speedy trial in January 1898 became major news this time and Esterhazy was deemed innocent. France was more divided than ever. The partisans of national security versus the defenders of truth and justice. The trial was clearly not fair, but it took Zola to muster the intellectuals and make it international.

It should be noted that the original Dreyfusards did not blame the army as a whole but rather a small clique of officers. They only wanted a fair and just trial. It was only later when the anti-Semitism and nationalism bloomed into anti-Republicanism and radical right-wing violence that the anti-militarism sprang forth in reprisal.

On January 13 1898 in L’Aurore Emile Zola risked his career and published “J’accuse!” addressed to the president of the republic, which would become famous worldwide. The man who often wrote but never acted politically turned vehement and combative. He, too, had first believed in Dreyfus’ guilt, but he was disgusted by the hatred he witnessed. And now a travesty of justice was on hand. Anatole France stood beside him and Séverine joined their ranks with many others. Zola was dragged into court for accusing the army generals of anti-Semitism and of deliberately and of knowingly convicting an innocent man. Support poured in from all over the world, from Leo Tolstoy in Russia to Mark Twain in the United States, but the opposition was too strong. There were terrible demonstrations of anti-Semites screaming Death to Jews, Long Live the Homeland, Long Live the Army, Down with Zola! And so on February 23 1898 after a dramatic trial Zola was sentenced to one year in prison and a 3,000 F fine. Perreux, the editor of L’Aurore was given the same fine but only four months in prison. Without question and without packing Zola beat a hasty retreat to London.

Séverine was no babe in the woods when it came to the judiciary machine. After her battles for Duval and Vaillant and the rest, she had a long habit of the gavel, robes and wigs and she knew the power that the pen could wield as well as the dangers that could result. When she answered in her turn in an article calling for the truth to come out she was attacked by an armed assailant, barely escaping with her life, disconcerted but not at all discouraged. Her involvement in the affair was not so much in support of the officer himself, but against all the lies and hypocrisy. Guilty or innocent was not the issue, it was the violation of justice that outraged her.