“The most frightful judicial error that has ever been made.”
- Alfred Dreyfus
Robert Harris is both prolific and versatile. A former journalist, best known for his 1986 account of the hoax surrounding Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries turned to penning novels that generally fall within three categories: alternative history such as Fatherland (1992), which is set in a triumphalist 1964 Nazi Germany that is contemplating a détente with America, and Archipelago (1998) that plays with the conceit that a diary purporting to be that of Stalin chronicles his relationship with a young woman who shortly before his death provided him with a son, one that is alive and in the 1990s is being groomed to seize power; thrillers such as The Ghost (2007) that takes as its premise the story of a professional ghost writer who is hired to replace a predecessor who drowned under mysterious circumstances, and then is assigned the task of completing the memoirs of a recently resigned Prime Minister that will counter the suspicions of war crimes he committed during the Iraq war, and Fear Index (2012) inspired by the global financial meltdown and with a nod to the Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, about a hedge fund operator who has designed computer software which uses artificial intelligence to trade on fear that for a time makes huge profits for its investors until the computer begins to operate on its own independent of human control; historical novels on ancient Rome, Pompeii (2003) and the first two novels of the trilogy that focuses on the orator and politician, Cicero, Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009). His most recent offering, An Officer and a Spy (Random House, 2013), about the notorious injustice visited upon Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer in fin de siècle France, fits within the last genre.When a torn-up bordereau or memorandum that a cleaning woman had retrieved from the wastebasket of the German military attaché indicated that someone was offering to sell low-level secrets to the Germans, suspicion fell upon Alfred Dreyfus because his handwriting supposedly matched that written on the bordereau. Yet he wasn’t short of money and wasn’t entangled with women, two of the most frequent motives for espionage. Regardless, an arrogant military caste needed a scapegoat and Dreyfus was convenient. He was an Alsatian, therefore had German sympathies, was standoffish and generally disliked by the officer class and, perhaps of greater import, he was Jewish. I say perhaps because there is an emerging historical consensus that Dreyfus' Jewishness became a major issue only after he was convicted and the anti-Semitic press seized upon his Jewish descent. He was subjected to a bewildering interrogation, placed under arrest, and in the secret star-chamber trial that followed he was never permitted to know the actual charges against him. After being convicted of espionage, he endured the public humiliation of being stripped of his military insignia to the taunts of “Death to the Jews” from the braying mob and was shipped out for a life of solitary confinement on Devils Island. That fate was averted only because of the tenacious efforts of a small group of individuals who became convinced that he had been a victim of an egregious miscarriage of justice. Most people who know something about what became known as The Affair likely learned about it because of the courageous efforts of Emile Zola and his sensational expose, J’accuse, his famous open letter to the President of the Republic in which he named members of the military for their involvement in railroading Dreyfus or their part in the subsequent cover up. They may have seen Paul Muni as Zola in the overrated 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola.
Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through Colonel Georges Picquart, a high-flying young officer, who acted as observer for the Minister of War, General Mercier, during the court martial of Dreyfus, before his appointment as the head of the French secret service, euphemistically named Statistical Section. Picquart may be known to those who saw Ken Russell’s coherently directed 1991 television film, Prisoner with Honor, which starred Richard Dreyfuss as Picquart. Harris adds substantially to our understanding of the principled and intelligent officer in An Officer and a Spy. It is extensively researched by the author who draws upon generations of secondary sources, notably the 2010 acclaimed monograph, Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century, by Oxford historian Ruth Harris (no relation) and from primary sources that include Dreyfus’ letters and memoir, court transcripts, newspaper reports and the French government’s recent decision to make available online all the secret files relating to the case. He provides a three-dimensional portrait of a widely-literate Picquart – he read Tolstoy in Russian while in prison – took delight in the visual arts and in music, as well as detailing the machinations of the military cabal that perpetrated and then covered up this injustice. We come to know Dreyfus mostly through his correspondence to his wife when it is intercepted and read by Picquart who incorporates the purloined private missives into his secret journal that comprises the whole book – a brilliant fictional vehicle – that is written in the first person present tense. As narrator, Picquart sets the scene, explaining the complexities of the original case against Dreyfus and the rising feelings of anti-Semitism in France.
A career soldier Picquart gradually finds intelligence work distasteful and longs to return to “real” soldiering. Eventually Picquart is posted to Tunisia, where he is saved from what would have been a suicide mission ordered from Paris by a sympathetic fellow colonel who delays the mission and allows Picquart to secretly return to France. There he contacts a trusted lawyer. Within a short time, although Picquart experiences personal setbacks when he is cashiered out of the army and spends time in prison for military insubordination, the tide is beginning to turn. Zola’s ringing manifesto and politicians like Georges Clemenceau begin to mount support for Dreyfus. These men, who became known as Dreyfusards, make only cameo appearances in the novel as does Alfred Dreyfus, but Harris vividly etches the strained relationship between Picquart and Dreyfus. Harris gives much more attention to the different generals, who Picquart slowly realizes are appallingly corrupt, especially to the second in command in the shadowy intelligence department, and subsequent successor, Major Joseph Henry.
|Colonel Georges Picquart|
The story is clearly a very rich and searing one, exposing the determination of military and political leaders to cover up their errors at all costs to preserve the official version of events. More profoundly, it also reveals the bigotry that foreshadowed the genocidal horror of the twentieth century. But An Officer and a Spy also chronicles the efforts of others, some of them anti-Semitic, that put their careers at risk and in some cases their lives to right a terrible wrong. The novel also underscores how a secret intelligence agency will attempt to destroy the careers and lives of anyone within that community who believes that its actions violate the constitution and the laws of a given country.
Consider the case of Thomas Drake who spent almost twenty years at the National Security Agency. He was called an enemy of the state and charged with espionage, and if convicted could have faced thirty-five year prison sentence for talking to the press about the illegalities that occurred at the NSA even though he did not disclose classified documents. The government case collapsed before the trial began. He is now speaking out publicly about his ordeal and the threat that the NSA and other secret intelligence services pose not only to the privacy of citizens in the name of national security but also how they violate the laws and the constitution of different countries. The ongoing revelations of Edward Snowden, who credits Drake as his inspiration, only confirms Drake’s message.
|(photo by Keith Penner)|