Talented Novelist Tackles the Dreyfus Affair

May 10, 2014 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

On a cold January morning in Paris in 1895, thousands turned out to watch the public humiliation and military “degradation” of a Jewish officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Wrongly convicted of treason, Dreyfus was dramatically stripped of the epaulettes, gold braid, and red stripes on his uniform, and his sword was broken. The mob screamed, “Death to the Jew” as Dreyfus was marched away, condemned to perpetual, solitary confinement on Devil’s Island, a remote rocky landmass off the coast of South America. Only after years of a relentless campaign that roiled and divided France did Dreyfus’s family, joined by a band of liberal intellectuals (called the Dreyfusards), win exoneration for Dreyfus.

British author Robert Harris masterfully retells the story of the Dreyfus Affair in his new historical thriller, An Officer and a Spy, available in our library. Cast as an espionage, cover-up, and whistle-blowing tale, the novel builds suspense while staying close to the facts. As one reviewer wrote, “Harris keeps us breathless and wondering, even though we know how the story ends.”

Real Traitor

 Harris chose as his narrator one of the less famous heroes of the Dreyfus Affair, Lieutenant Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart. Months after Dreyfus was condemned, Picquart accidentally identified the real traitor and stubbornly pursued justice, even when the army resorted to sinister measures – dangerous postings, arrest, and imprisonment – to silence and discredit Picquart.

Georges Picquart was an unlikely champion for Alfred Dreyfus. Devoted to the French army, Picquart was an ambitious officer; at age 40 he was the army’s youngest lieutenant colonel. Moreover, Picquart personally knew and disliked Dreyfus – he had been one of his instructors at the military academy – and distrusted Jews generally. Initially, he readily accepted the army’s determination that Dreyfus had secretly passed French military secrets to Germany; Picquart even helped facilitate Dreyfus’s arrest.

Picquart’s conversion to Dreyfus’s cause came about because of a job promotion. In July 1895, the army appointed Picquart chief of the Statistical Section (a euphemistic name for the army’s counter-espionage unit), which had furnished the evidence that led to Dreyfus’s conviction. As the new chief, Picquart learned how flimsy and insubstantial that evidence was.

Filched Note

 The primary incriminating document was a torn-up note filched from a wastepaper basket in the German embassy in Paris by a charwoman recruited to spy for the Statistical Section. The reassembled memorandum (called the bordereau) revealed that a French officer was sharing military intelligence with the Germans. The army high command leapt to the conclusion that the Jewish Dreyfus, who had family ties to Alsace, a once-French region then under German control, must be a German spy. Even when experts disagreed whether the handwriting in the bordereau matched that of Dreyfus, the army forged ahead with its prosecution. “This is a race entirely without patriotism,” one army official in Harris’s book proclaimed.

In March 1896, Picquart was wading through a bulky delivery of wastepaper basket litter purloined from the German embassy when he came upon documents revealing that the spy within the French army was still at large. To his astonishment, his army superiors refused to reopen the Dreyfus case, insisting that preserving the reputation of the army was far more important to the nation than the fate of “one Jew on a rock.”

Many startling twists and turns follow, all true to the facts. Harris, a former political journalist, made good use of the secret Dreyfus files recently de-classified by the French Ministry of Defense. Now Harris is working on the film version of An Officer and A Spy. But don’t wait for the movie. Read this terrific book.