An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris


I have been interested in the Dreyfus Affair ever since I read Zola's J'Accuse! about two years ago. Then lately Michael Rosen's The Disappearance of Émile Zola let my interest sparked again. Yet, these two books only cover the affair from Zola's point of view; or rather, Zola's fight and struggle during Dreyfus Affair; they do not touch its core. It is in this field has Robert Harris done a terrific job to spotlight one of the biggest political scandals in 19th century which has torn and humiliated France as a nation, by weaving every aspect of it into this riveting historical novel.

In September 1894 a suspicious note has been found by a French espionage agent who worked at the German Embassy in Paris (a cleaning woman who was recruited by the French). The note (or borderau) was addressed to German military attaché: Max von Schwartzkoppen, containing some secret information on French artillery. It's not the first leakage of military secret, and the press and public have been putting big pressure to the Ministry of War to solve it. To save his face, the Minister (General Mercier) put a thorough investigation inside the General Staff. A young major named Alfred Dreyfus seems to be a perfect culprit, since he is a Jewish officer with Alsatian origin (Alsace has been annexed by Germany after France's defeat at Franco-Prussian war). Dreyfus was soon imprisoned and tortured to confess, yet he kept insisting of his innocence. To fill in the 'gap' at preliminary enquiry in court, the Statistical Section staffs then manipulated the borderau to frame Dreyfus up.

Alfred Dreyfus
Now, Dreyfus is a 'loner' Jewish; he is wealthy, proud, cold, and arrogant towards others. He is not a favorite among his friends, and often annoys his chiefs. Bingo! They have found the perfect victim. He's 'only a regular Jew' anyway... ; and this was when the anti-semitic sentiment played its role. The verdict was inevitable: Dreyfus was guilty and must be exiled to Devil's Island. To this point everyone (excepted Dreyfus' relatives and the Jewish) believed that Dreyfus was guilty. But then, a young officer, Georges Picquart, was appointed the new Chief of Statistical Section, and became the youngest Colonel ever in French Military history. It was Picquart who first suspected that a Major Esterhazy was actually the real writer of the infamous borderau. Through Picquart's conscience and heroic action (against military law), the conspiracy was began to be revealed, and finally made public by Zola's J'Accuse!

Georges Picquart
I was really furious by this Dreyfus business. Two aspects in particular have really disgusted me: first, that the real (original) borderau actually consisted of ridiculously trivial information. The fact that Schwartzkoppen (the German attaché) has even torn it to six pieces and thrown it to his garbage bin, should have made one questioning its value. It's true that an internal spy has divulged the information, but punishing the culprit to that extent (Dreyfus was humiliated in front of the army, and was solitary confined and tortured in Devil's Island) is ridiculous! Was there nobody ever wondered why the government put so much effort (not mentioning costs) to guard a prisoner from such minor crime? But again, it's the anti-semitic sentiment: he's only a regular Jew...

The second is how almost all rank of the army—excepted Picquart—kept defending the ugly lies and injustice piles by the chiefs. It's more than anti-semitism here, it's the military 'code of honor', which instantly reminded me of the movie A Few Good Men. They have the wrong illusion that defending the honor of the army and nation is higher than humanity—the 'for the greater good' stuff. I am still amazed at how these military men could have such a blind notion! France was lucky to have Georges Picquart and Émile Zola who have risked their career and personal life, and unselfishly followed their conscience to pursue truth and justice.

Degradation of Alfred Dreyfus

At the end, what was the source of all this abominable business? It’s Ambition and greediness of General Mercier and the racism of the staff. Defending the nation, eh? In reality they have almost triggered a civil war! And how much sorrows have they inflicted to the Dreyfusards and their families?

Once again, Robert Harris didn't disappoint his readers. Almost all of the events and characters in this book are real. Harris only filled in the gaps with his imagination to weave it into an enjoyable novel, which is narrated by Georges Picquart. If you want to learn more about Dreyfus Affair, and/or more about Georges Picquart, this book will satisfy you.

5/5 is my final verdict.

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