An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”There is no such thing as a secret--not really, not in the modern world, not with photography and telegraphy and railways and newspaper presses. The old days of an inner circle of like-minded souls communicating with parchment and quill pens are gone. Sooner or later most things will be revealed.”
Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s mugshot
Georges Picquart was as convinced of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s guilt as anyone else in 1894. In fact for the invaluable service he provided during the affair he becomes the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in the French military. He is also promoted to head the Intelligence department, not the most prestigious appointment given that spying was considered rather unseemly, rather ungentlemanly.
”The air warms up and very soon Paris starts to reek of shit. The stench rises out of the sewers and settles over the city like a putrid gas…. In the newspapers the experts are unanimous that it isn’t as bad as the original ‘great stink’ of 1880…. ‘It is impossible to stand on one’s balcony,’ complains Le Figaro, ‘impossible to sit on the terrace of one of the busy, joyful cafes that are the pride of our boulevards, without thinking that one must be downwind from some uncouth, invisible giant.’ The smell infiltrates one’s hair and clothes and settles in one’s nostrils, even on one’s tongue, so that everything tastes of corruption. Such is the atmosphere on the day I take charge of the Statistical Section.”
Major Esterhazy. “His head in profile is flattish and tapers like a vulture’s to a great beak of a nose. His moustache is large and swept back. His eyes are round and protuberant: not natural, but crazy, like glass balls pressed into the skull of a skeleton in a medical school.”
The stench becomes all consuming when Picquart sees a photocopy of the famous Bordereau Letter that was so pivotal in the conviction of Dreyfus. The problem is Picquart recognizes the handwriting, an almost exact match to a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy. A man he suspects of trying to sell secrets to the Germans. In the course of convicting Dreyfus several handwriting experts were consulting until finally they found one that said that Dreyfus was “the probable author” of the letter.
You might be downwind of that uncouth Giant yourself about right now.
The famous Bordereau Letter that “incriminated” Dreyfus, but should have exonerated him. The original copy of the letter mysteriously disappeared in the 1940s.
So what is this really all about? The evidence against Dreyfus is built on such a tissue of lies that it is impossible to believe that any reasonable person could have found him guilty.
Did I happen to mention that Dreyfus was Jewish?
This all really begins back in 1870 when Germany started a unification program. Two regions Alsace and Moselle were annexed by the Germans. The result of this German aggression is the Franco-Prussian War that was disastrous for the French. They are soundly defeated despite having a large standing army and a jump start on mobilization. The Germans moved quickly, had a better understanding of the current technologies, and how to best deploy them in war. Their troops, to the surprise of the French, turned out to be better trained and were lead by more competent commanders. This defeat leads to a time of zealous nationalism and riding along in the sidecar right along with nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When word spreads that there is a spy in the French army it only makes sense that it must be a Jew.
Dreyfus as a rabbit about to be stewed.
Down with the Jews. Death to the Jews. The anger of the population is boiling, misplaced though it may be, they are convinced that the Jews in some way, some mystical fashion, contributed to the defeat in 1870.
As Picquart continues to investigate Esterhazy, finding more and more evidence that he is a much better candidate to be the German spy than Dreyfus, it becomes apparent that his commanding officers, a covey of white haired generals, are not interested in reopening the Dreyfus case.
Picquart is inexplicably reassigned to a unit in Tunisia. The Siberia of French outposts.
Georges Picquart in his Tunisian Uniform.
Finally after months of idleness with no word on when he can return to Paris, he requests a weeks leave and returns to Paris to turn over all his information to his lawyer who then takes that information to the man of impeccable character who also happens to be wealthy enough to withstand bribes or threats, Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.
The French generals start to act guilty. Strange, potentially incriminating cables are sent to Picquart. He is arrested and brought up on a series of charges. Emile Zola, a great advocate of Dreyfus and Picquart, is arrested and imprisoned. The truth proves to be such a dangerous thing to know.
Emile Zola was imprisoned for the zeal in which he called for Dreyfus to be released.
Picquart, when he discovers a mounting level of evidence that more than pokes holes in the flimsy conviction of Dreyfus, but actually completely destroys the case against Dreyfus, his first thought is that all of it needed to be brought into the light of day and dealt with before the newspapers get wind of the incongruities infesting the evidence against Dreyfus. After all a secret never remains a secret.
There is little one can do especially in this time period when the power of an organization as formidable as the army decides to fabricate charges against a citizen, backed by a population who wants to see a Jew convicted and wants to see Picquart broken for trying to defend a Jew. Imprisoned Picquart feels a strange sense of relief. The secrets are no longer just his secrets. His needs are simple. He merely needs to feed the mind.
”If my enemies on the General Staff imagine that this represents some kind of hardship for me, they are mistaken. I have a bed and a chair, pen and paper, and plenty of books---Goethe, Heine, Ibsen, Proust kindly sends me his collected writings, Les Plaisirs et les Jours; my sister a new French-Russian dictionary. What more does a man want? I am imprisoned and liberated.”
As a reader, if I have access to books, I’m almost impossible to imprison. Books allow me to be anywhere I want to be. Gray damp walls may surround me, iron bars might grid my vision, but my mind can always fly.
Picquart as a way to relax translates Fyodor Dostoyevsky into French. I liked and respected Picquart, but when I learned that nugget of information I came close to having a man crush.
Robert Harris and I have a long relationship going back to his first novel Fatherland, where he explored the idea of what the world would have been like if Hitler had won WW2. Picking up a Harris book for me has always been a sure thing. In this book he puts us in the mind of Picquart we see his fallacies, his doubts, his courage, his outrage, and ultimately his determination to find justice. His expectations for France are idealistic. No one would have faulted him for losing faith in the country and the army he loves. He never falters in his desire to remind them of how a man of honor and valor is expected to conduct himself.
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