On this day in 1888, the trial of Emile Zola for criminal libel began in Paris. He had published an open letter to the President of France, Félix Faure, accusing the French Army of obstruction of justice and antisemitism in the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew.
Dreyfus was a loyal career soldier sentenced, for treason, to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. He had been falsely accused of passing military secrets to the German embassy, though evidence had been discovered and brought to the attention of authorities that another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was actually the guilty party.
Zola’s intention was to be prosecuted for libel so that he could present the exculpatory evidence about Dreyfus during the trial. Zola was convicted of the libel charge, removed from the Legion of Honor, and faced imprisonment.
He fled to England to avoid prison, but returned after eight months. He was offered a choice between a pardon which would allow him to go free if he admitted to being guilty, or facing a re-trial in which he was sure to be convicted again and sent to prison. Although he was clearly not guilty, he chose to accept the pardon.
Zola said of the affair, “The truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.” In 1906, Dreyfus was finally exonerated by the Supreme Court.
The sensational Dreyfus case divided France, but provided proof that the intellectual class could shape public opinion and influence state policy. This was not lost on Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian-born secular Jew, who was a writer, journalist, and political activist working in Paris at the time. Herzl was witness to mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial and stated that he was particularly affected by chants of “Death to the Jews!” from the crowds.
Herzl is often thought to be the father of Zionism, though some scholars dispute this. He was certainly one of the strongest early promoters of the Zionist idea in any case. What Herzl took away from the Dreyfus affair is that a Jew could never truly assimilate into any other national culture. No matter how French or German or American, or “un-Jewish” he might think himself to be, other Frenchmen, Germans, or Americans always would see him as a Jew.
As a young law student, Herzl had become a member of the German nationalist fraternity, Albia, which had the motto “Honor, Freedom, Fatherland”. He later resigned in protest at the organization’s antisemitism.
He concluded that a Jew would not be accepted as a real Frenchman or German, despite any efforts or displays of patriotism or heroism in the name of that nation. He was always an outsider, the “other”, and always would be seen to have “Jewish interests” that would come before and conflict with French or German interests. Herzl concluded, presciently it would soon be shown, that the Jews could not rely on the protection or beneficence of their “host”governments. To be safe in the world and regarded as citizens in full, they must have their own state.
Herzl worked hard to organize Zionist conferences, lobby European governments, and so on. In 1896, Herzl published “The State of the Jews”, a book which argued that the Jewish people should leave Europe either for Argentina or for Palestine, their historic homeland. The Jews possessed a nationality, he said, and all they were missing was a nation and a state of their own. It was the only way they could avoid antisemitism, express their culture, or practice their religion freely.
Herzl died in 1904, and his descendants all suffered tragic fates.
His daughter Paulina struggled with mental illness and died of a drug overdose in 1930 at age 40.
His son Hans had converted from Judaism to being first a Baptist, then a Catholic, and then flirted with various other Protestant denominations. He shot himself at 39 on the day of Paulina’s funeral. He left a note that said:
“A Jew remains a Jew, no matter how eagerly he may submit himself to the disciplines of his new religion, how humbly he may place the redeeming cross upon his shoulders for the sake of his former coreligionists, to save them from eternal damnation: a Jew remains a Jew. … I can’t go on living. I have lost all trust in God. All my life I’ve tried to strive for the truth, and must admit today at the end of the road that there is nothing but disappointment. Tonight I have said Kaddish for my parents—and for myself, the last descendant of the family. There is nobody who will say Kaddish for me, who went out to find peace—and who may find peace soon.”
Herzl’s third child, his daughter Trude, died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Trude’s son, Stephan Theodor Neumann, was Herzl’s only grandchild, and became an ardent Zionist. He was working in Washington D.C. in August 1946, when he learned how his mother had perished. He was despondent about her fate and his inability to help the Jewish people. He jumped to his death from the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge in Washington, D.C. on November 26, 1946.