Review of ‘An Officer an a Spy’ by Robert Harris


Unknown-2 Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). Hardback / Kindle

In 1894, the French Army arrested, indicted, court martialed, convicted, and sent into penal exile Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, for selling military secrets to the Germans. Due to problems with the evidence against him, Dreyfus was retried in 1899 but once again found guilty. Only in 1906, before the Supreme Court of Appeals, was Dreyfus exonerated, restored to the Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel, and declared a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He had proclaimed his innocence through his 12 years of suffering.

The Dreyfus Affair rocked French society and politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It exposed the French Army’s incompetence (in arresting the wrong man), corruption (for fabricating evidence against him), and incorrigibility (for taking 12 years to rectify the wrong it had done). The affair pitted traditional Catholic France (the Right) against socialist secular France (the Left) and resulted in changes of government and law, including the drastic 1905 law separating Church and State. (The official French policy of laicité stems from that law.) The virulent anti-Semitism of the affair also prompted Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist covering the 1894 court martial for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, to reject the strategy of Jewish assimilation into European society and to propose the establishment of a Jewish state instead.

In An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris traces, in fictional form, the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Colonel Georges Picquart, who as head of the Army’s Statistical Section (a branch of military intelligence) revealed that the Army had convicted the wrong man and then fabricated evidence to cover its mistake. Picquart was the youngest colonel in the Army at that time and had a bright career ahead of him. However, his insistence that the Army right the wrong against Dreyfus pushed him out of favor with the General Staff, who moved him from the Statistical Section to a command of indigenous troops in Tunisia, then court martialed him, drumming him out of the army entirely. (He was rehabilitated, along with Dreyfus, and served as Minister of War from 1906–1909 under Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.)

Harris is a lucid writer. An Officer and a Spy held my interest throughout, though I must admit that the book took its time building to the climax. In my opinion, the book is not as good a work as Fatherland, a counterfactual historical novel, in part because most readers already know the ending of the (real) story. Then again, if you don’t know the story, this is an excellent novelistic account of it.

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