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Today we celebrate Émile Zola, born on this day 175 years ago.
Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola (2 April 1840 - 29 September 1902) was a French author, and the self-proclaimed leader of the Literary Naturalism movement. In addition, he was one of the principal movers in the 19th century political liberalization of France. Over the course of his career, Zola wrote more than 30 novels, numerous short stories, and several plays.
Perhaps best know for his "J' Accuse...!" letter during the Dreyfus Affair, Zola was very much involved in liberal politics of his day.
The Dreyfus Affair
Alfred Dreyfus, of Alsatian and Jewish descent, was a Captain in the French Artillery. In 1894, he was, on extremely flimsy circumstantial evidence, accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. Convicted of treason, he was expelled from the Army and condemned to life in prison on Devil's Island in French Guiana.
Two years later, new evidence was discovered that exonerated Dreyfus and disclosed the true culprit. The Army not only suppressed it but also punished whistle-blowing officer.
On 13 January, 1898, Zola risked his career and more with his open letter to the President of the Republic accusing the very highest echelons of the French Army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair. It was published on the front page of the Paris daily L'Aurore. As he and his liberal friends had planned, he was tried and convicted for criminal libel of the army. What they had not foreseen was that he would have to flee to England to avoid arrest and prison. Soon, however, Zola was pardoned and returned home. Eventually, Dreyfus was pardoned and French liberals saw it as a victory of obscurantism. Without doubt, the outcome of the Dreyfus Affair was due in large part to Zola's fame, already well established before he became involved.
Zola's best-known work and masterpiece is Germinal, the 13th work in his 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. The series relates the story of a fictional family in the Second French Empire and is one of French Literary Naturalism. The book relates, with stark honesty the story of a coal miner's strike in Northern France and takes its title from the name of one of the spring months in the French Republican calendar. At the beginning of the strike, the miners have great hopes for a better life, but conditions worsen until the miners and their families, driven to despair, riot. Zola unflinchingly portrayed the violence on both sides when the Army and police repress it and the miners are forced to return to work. Germinal ends on a hopeful note, though and has inspired labor activists ever since its publication.
At least one Anarchist assassin, Michele Angiolillo, went to his death with the word "Germinal" on his lips. And at Zola's funeral, crowds of workers thronged the streets, chanting "Germinal! Germinal!" as the cortege passed by.