The Dreyfus Affair in a great political thriller

One hundred and twenty years ago, in December 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of selling French800px-Tombe_Alfred_Dreyfus,_Cimetière_du_Montparnasse 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


  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    It seems to me that French politicians, newspapers and the army relied on enduring French anti-semitism to convict Dreyfus, not the other way around, as Vigier suggests. To understand Gonse, you have to go back to 1870-71 and the humiliation of the French army by the Germans. That French military secrets were being handed to the Germans in 1894 was a further humiliation, and the army needed to save face by finding a fall-guy quickly. Dreyfus, as an Alsatian Jew, filled the bill and, once he was convicted, it would have been an insupportable humiliation to admit they had the wrong man. This is why the Dreyfus Affair remains eternally relevant, not just in France but everywhere. When institutions feel threatened (and today we have plenty, from the police in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York to the CIA, to mention a few), the ranking officers close ranks to defend the institution any way they can, not stopping short of human sacrifice. We can expect more of this behavior, because survival is a human need that we mistakenly transfer to institutions and willingly deny to actual human beings. The only defense is a leavening of the population with a number of dreyfusards with built-in bullshit detectors when institutions bluster and blather.


    • Catherine Vigier

      I agree totally that institutions use racism of different sorts to deflect criticism away from themselves, and we can certainly talk about institutionalized racism in the case of Dreyfus, Ferguson and a host of other situations. But I don’t agree that this needed some kind of ‘enduring French anti-semitism’ . Dreyfus was convicted on the basis of secret ‘evidence’ handed over to the judges and not disclosed to anyone until Picquart got his hands on it months later. There was a lot of anti-semitic feeling in France at the time related to fears about the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews into France, and this was exploited by politicians. Today we have massive Islamophobia whipped up by the National Front and slavishly imitated by the other parties. Today’s National Front is very careful to hide its anti-semitism – most of the time. I’m not saying anti-semitism doesn’t exist in France, just that today Muslims are the main targets of institutionalized racism over here.


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