One hundred and twenty years ago, in December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of selling French military secrets to the Germans. He was sentenced to life in exile on Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana. Politicians and journalists used the fact that Dreyfus was a Jew to whip up a massive wave of anti-Semitic feeling among the population. Nevertheless, a campaign to prove Dreyfus’s innocence was organized by his brother Mathieu and the journalist Bernard Lazare. The cause was taken up by many socialists and intellectuals on the left who became convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice. Foremost among Dreyfus’s defenders was the novelist and journalist Emile Zola.
Last year, the French Government made the archives relating to the Dreyfus affair available online. Robert Harris used the extensive documentation in the archives to write a fascinating political thriller about the affair. An Officer and a Spy is the story told from the point of view of Major Picquart, who is promoted to a position in military intelligence after Dreyfus is sentenced, but then finds evidence to suggest that another officer, Esterhazy, is the real culprit. This leaves Picquart with a dilemma: pursue the truth or save his career. He reflects on his options after a meeting with General Gonse, Head of Military Intelligence, who has ordered him to drop any investigation into Dreyfus’s innocence:
On the train back to Paris I sit with my briefcase clutched tightly in my lap. I stare out bleakly at the rear balconies and washing lines of the northern suburbs, and the soot-caked stations – Colombes, Asnières, Clichy. I can hardly believe what has just occurred. I keep going over the conversation in my mind. Did I make some mistake in my presentation? Should I have laid it out more clearly – told him in plain terms that the so-called ‘evidence’ in the secret file crumbles into the mere dust of conjecture compared to what we know for sure about Esterhazy? But the more I think of it, the more certain I am that such frankness would have been a grave error. Gonse is utterly intransigent: nothing I can say will shift his opinion; there is no way on earth, as far as he’s concerned, that Dreyfus will be brought back for a retrial. To have pushed it even further would have led to a complete breakdown in our relations.
I don’t return to the office: I cannot face it. Instead I go back to my apartment and lie on my bed and smoke cigarette after cigarette with a relentlessness that would impress Gonse, even if nothing else about me does.
The thing is, I have no wish to destroy my career. Twenty-four years it has taken me to get this far. Yet my career will be pointless to me – will lose the very elements of honor and pride that make it worth having – if the price of keeping it is to become merely one of the Gonses of this world.
– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer
Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy, London, Arrow Books, 2014.
Photo: Dreyfus’s tomb, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Credit: Wikimedia Commons