On Monday afternoon I went to see the film Monuments Men and once again I squarely faced the anti-Semitism that was rampant in France during World War II. Even in dealing with art and culture the French collaborationists of Vichy brought my blood to a boil. My wife asked me how a country that was the home of the enlightenment and the emancipation of Jews in the 18th century could still remain a prisoner of the disease of religious prejudice. First, I explained French roots in Catholicism and then mentioned the Dreyfus Affair, both endemic to the split in French society that has existed for centuries preceding World War II. As if by coincidence I have just read Robert Harris’ new historical novel, An Officer and a Spy that attempts to create the atmosphere in France following the trial of Alfred Dreyfus for supposedly selling French national security secrets to the country that soundly defeated them in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The affair invigorated the split in French society between liberals and anti-Semites that evolved into two political forces; the Dreyfusards, symbolized by the likes of Emile Zola and Georges and Albert Clemenceau who fought for the acquittal of Dreyfus, and the anti-Dreyfusards who were embodied by the Catholic Church and supporters of the French military establishment. The Dreyfus Affair not only affected French society and politics of the period but it also enhanced support for the burgeoning Zionist movement as a reporter for a Viennese newspaper was in attendance at the initial trial; one, Theodore Herzl. Harris’ novel, despite the negative comments in Janet Maslin’s February 3, 2014 review in the New York Times, is well conceived and after a somewhat slow start in developing the story achieves a dramatic flair that is well grounded in original source material. Of course, as any novelist, Harris does at times take some literary license, but overall it accomplished its goal of educating the reader on the implications of a historical event that still has repercussions today.
Harris does not recapitulate the entire Dreyfus Affair as he concentrates on the battle to overturn Dreyfus’ conviction of treason against the French state. Dreyfus was an artillery officer in the French army who was serving as a staff officer to the French General Staff. The novel is told through the voice of Colonel Georges Picquart who was promoted to be Chief of French Military Intelligence soon after Dreyfus was convicted. Picquart starts out supporting the conviction of Dreyfus but soon develops doubts about the evidence that was used to convict, and as he digs deeper, he comes to the conclusion that there was another spy who turns out to be Major Ferdinand Halsin Esterhazy. After spying on the suspect and accumulating further evidence Picquart is convinced that Esterhazy was the original spy and that Dreyfus was framed. The novel explores the machinations of French military authorities to the highest levels and their cover up to preserve Dreyfus’ guilt as he rots in a prison on Devil’s Island off the coast of South America.
Harris style is very descriptive, be it a palace, a courtroom, a prison cell, or a restaurant. Though the author does make up some of the dialogue, which is to be expected, it seems to conform to existing trial transcripts and other documentation. The travesty of injustice is presented and at times makes the readers’ “blood boil” because though the book is considered fiction, it represents accurately the historical events it discusses. Harris does a good job of presenting Picquart’s evolution as a military officer who out of honor refuses to accept the fallibility of his military superiors to a person who at first questions authority resulting in a mindset that challenges the duplicity and treasonous behavior of Generals Mercier, Billot, Gonse, and Boisdeffre, the leaders of the French army who know Dreyfus is innocent, but refuse to reverse themselves despite the fact that the evidence used to convict was falsified. The novel follows Picquarts’ public and private life, his imprisonment, and the culmination of his work in a way that captures the reader’s attention as all the major historical players are integrated into the narrative.
(Cartoon depicting Emile Zola’s famous newspaper article that skewers the French military establishment)
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the novel are the repartee that takes place during the trials of Picquart, the French novelist Emile Zola’s libel trial, the final trial of Alfred Dreyfus, and the final meeting between Dreyfus and Picquart. I do agree with Janet Maslin that at times the dialogue and flow of the narrative is uneven, but as the story evolves it becomes an engrossing political thriller, and if one is learning about the “affair” for the first time it is an education in of itself. I recommend the book highly and I would encourage everyone to explore this topic because its lessons whether partisanship, prejudice, or rigid ideology that at times seems to infect our leaders is still in full display today.