January 1895. On a freezing morning in the heart of Paris, an army officer, Georges Picquart, witnesses a convicted spy, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, being publicly humiliated in front of twenty thousand spectators baying 'Death to the Jew!' The officer is rewarded with promotion: Picquart is made the French army's youngest colonel and put in command of 'the Statistical Section' - the shadowy intelligence unit that tracked down Dreyfus. The spy, meanwhile, is given a punishment of medieval cruelty: Dreyfus is shipped off to a lifetime of solitary confinement on Devil's Island - unable to speak to anyone, not even his guards, his case seems closed forever. But gradually Picquart comes to believe there is something rotten at the heart of the Statistical Section. When he discovers another German spy operating on French soil, his superiors are oddly reluctant to pursue it. Despite official warnings, Picquart persists, and soon the officer and the spy are in the same predicament. Narrated by Picquart, An Officer and a Spy is a compelling recreation of a scandal that became the most famous miscarriage of justice in history. Compelling, too, are the echoes for our modern world: an intelligence agency gone rogue, justice corrupted in the name of national security, a newspaper witch-hunt of a persecuted minority, and the age-old instinct of those in power to cover-up their crimes.
Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French Army in 1894 when he is arrested and charged with treason for delivering French military secrets to the enemy, Germany. In spite of scant evidence, he is convicted and sentenced to life in prison, to be served on the French penal colony, Devil’s Island, off the coast of Guiana. Harris’ chilling portrayal of an Army and justice system run amok had me up until the wee hours, devouring his suspenseful narrative that screeched and halted through time at the behest of both fictional and real historical characters.
As the story opens, the narrator, Col. Georges Picquart, has just witnessed Dreyfus being stripped of his rank before thousands of gleeful, cheering Parisians. Picquart has also just been promoted, the youngest colonel in French military history and the new head of the counterespionage agency that just “proved” Dreyfus’ guilt. While in this role, Picquart goes on to discover that the evidence that convicted Dreyfus has not really proved his guilt at all and, as a matter of fact, it indicates a different man’s guilt altogether. As he tries to convince the men under him as well as his commanding officers that an innocent man has been convicted, Picquart discovers that a web of deceit and conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of government and the military, has been carried out and that proving his theory will not be easy.
In addition to the heart pounding narrative that carries the reader along at breakneck speed, the inclusion of historically accurate documents and characters (including Zola, Proust, the Russian Tsar and the Clemenceau brothers) and the prevalence of anti-Semitism, nationalism, and public opinion all contribute to an atmosphere of social mores gone berserk.
But it’s Harris’ masterful storytelling that really carries the day and makes the narrative fairly sing: crisp dialogue and the positioning of his rogues gallery of forgers, spies, modest mistresses, half-hearted soldiers as well as the dramatic courtroom scenes combine to deliver a knockout thriller. Don’t miss it.
The story is told in the first person by another officer, Georges Picquart and this is as much his story as Dreyfus'. Picquart played a minor role carrying news of Dreyfus’ public humiliation to the Minister of War. Although convinced of Dreyfus’ guilt, Picquart is disturbed by the fact that, even under the most humiliating of circumstances, Dreyfus continues to declare his innocence.
When Picquart is made head of the Statistical Section of the General Staff, the section responsible for Dreyfus’ arrest, he discovers evidence that Dreyfus was innocent and uncovers the officer who is actually responsible for the crimes for which Dreyfus has been convicted. When Picquart relays this evidence to those in charge, he is sent to Tunisia and even given a mission which would most likely end in his death. When this fails, he is imprisoned and is even charged with falsifying the evidence against the real spy. The country has been divided by the Dreyfus case and now with the Picquart’s evidence, Dreyfus’ supporters feel it is time to speak out. This includes Emile Zola’s famous editorial, J’Accuse in 1898.
Eventually, the military was forced to bring Dreyfus back for a second court martial where he is again found guilty. Then he was tried by a civilian court and, although they also find him guilty, he was given a pardon. He had spent four years on Devil’s Island. The Supreme Court of France would finally declare him innocent in 1906.
An Officer and a Spy is based on the Dreyfus Affair but it is fiction and, as such, as author Robert Harris points out some things have been changed, for example, Picquart never wrote a secret account of the Dreyfus Affair, and, of course, the dialogue is all down to Harris. However, he has maintained all the essential facts of the case. It is hard to imagine how an author can turn what is probably the most infamous miscarriage of justice in history into one heck of a good thriller. After all, even if we don’t know all the details, we all pretty much know how it will turn out. Yet, somehow, with this novel, author Robert Harris has done just that.
The famous, or rather infamous trial of Alfred Dreyfus, will live on in history as a travesty of justice, as an example of man’s inhumanity to man. The French gendarmes and spymasters wanted a sacrificial lamb and who better to blame than a Jew. Dreyfus, was condemned, convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island in the hope that he would die there, eliminating the problem of his innocence. A model soldier, he was devoted to the cause of the French, even though his heritage was German, but that indeed, is what eventually made him the perfect foil. The French were demoralized by their loss in the war with Germany in 1870. To rise again, they needed a scapegoat. Did they sacrifice a man simply to embarrass Germany by pretending that because Dreyfus was German, he was the most likely suspect to pass along secrets to them? Would they then let the guilty man walk free? Their dishonorable behavior will not be forgotten.
Colonel Georges Picquart is the star of this “performance”, for indeed, the author and the reader made it seem like he was on stage, allowing the reader to watch and witness every nook and cranny of his investigation, complete with false accusations, forgeries, false imprisonments, kangaroo courts, prejudged trials, fraud, falsification of the facts, refusal to face the errors in the court case and correct them, anti-Semitism, French nationalism, possibly even murder to protect the cover-up, and a complete lack of ethics and morality.
In 1895, Georges Picquart was designated as the new head of the Statistical Section in the French Army’s intelligence division. He had been a “good boy”, a bit unwittingly, during the mockery of the secret trial of Alfred Dreyfus, actually leading him to the slaughter, and was subsequently rewarded with this position, the reason for which others were awaref, but he was not. When he discovered he had probably been used, he became suspicious of certain details of the arrest and trial, and he began to rethink the events that led to the arrest. When he discovered the possibility of another spy, he attempted to re-investigate the case. When he then discovered the fraudulent events and tactics leading up to the arrest of Dreyfus, he was appalled and tried to alert his superiors. Although he was not a lover of Jews, he was ashamed of the part he has played in this sham of a trial. They knew the evidence was false, tampered with and fabricated, yet they proceeded to cover their tracks and make a Jew the convenient victim, a victim that the masses loved to hate.
As Picquart attempts to inform his superiors, he is thwarted at every turn and eventually sent to far away places, losing his position and esteem, as they try to cover up their part in this miscarriage of justice. They are not interested in bringing the guilty man to bear, they only want to keep the innocent man imprisoned so they can continue their political and military rise. Dreyfus was indeed framed; Picquart knew he was innocent. He was tormented by the need to do something to correct the wrong that was done. As the conspiracy widened, he became more certain that he had to stop them. As Henri, who worked for Picquart had indicated, he, Henri, was the consummate soldier and would obey orders, regardless of what they were, in order to preserve and protect the army, and, of course, his own career. He, among others, told Picquart, many times, to stop his investigation and let the matter rest.
Picquart, merely wanted to do the right thing before the whole thing exploded and came down upon the head of the military, but he, too, was eventually arrested, framed by those who wished to hide their sins from the public eye. From the top down, they were complicit; the Minister of War, The Chief of Staff, and other important figures all played a role in this sham. The innocent were punished while the guilty man roamed free. The minor players, who could offer evidence, suddenly died. Were they murdered? Did they commit suicide?
The story details the effort to free Dreyfus and restore his honor. It highlights the tenderness he felt for his family, the devotion of his family and the entire Jewish community to his cause, and the horrific punishment he was subject to by the penal system that believed he was guilty. He was shackled, without any creature comforts and even forbidden his mail; he was isolated completely. The public believed he had committed treason, and the French couldn’t care less about him. To them he was a convenient traitor. His religion, as well as his crime, made him a pariah for the citizens of France, but a cause célèbre for his family, friends and fellow Jews.
In the end, Picquart may have shown his true colors. He wanted to do what was honorable but he did not care much for Jews. Although he had been restored to his rightful rank and was made the Minister of War in 1906, he refused to do the same for Dreyfus when he came to him requesting the same, to be made Brigadier General, the rank he would have held had he not spent years in prison. I wondered if that scene was put in the book to show the consistency, the prevalence of French anti-Semitism and/or the prevailing stereotype of the greedy Jew. What Picquart did was commendable, but he didn’t risk his life and career to save a Jew, though that was the outcome; he didn’t align themselves with their cause because a Jew was unjustly accused and imprisoned, he did it for the principle, he did it to do the right thing. I got the feeling, sadly, that he still did not like Jews!
Alfred Dreyfus, a wealthy Jewish officer in the French army was convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, an inhospitable prison island a few miles off the coast of French Guyana. Before being deported he was subjected to a numbing ceremony of public degradation in which the insignia of his rank were ripped off his uniform in front of a baying crowd of thousands, many of whom were screaming "Death to the Jew".
One of the witnesses to that ceremony was Marie-Georges Picquart, then a major in the army, charged with reporting back to General Mercier, one of the Chief's of Staff in the Ministry of War. Picquart knew Dreyfus, having taught him at the military academy and then supervised him during his induction into the General Staff. Shortly after this Picquart is promoted to Colonel and appointed to supervise one the counter-espionage section of the Intelligence Division. While there Picquart is required to review Dreyfus's correspondence with his family, which prompts him to look into the details of the alleged treason.
Picquart gradually become convinced that the evidence against Dreyfus is at best circumstantial and, more probably, the consequence of a deliberate ploy motivated by Anti-Semitic prejudice and envy of Dreyfus's wealth. Meanwhile he amasses evidence of the identity of the actual traitor.
Even though one knows the denouement Harris keeps the reader engaged. The novel is deeply researched and the relationships between the characters are entirely plausible, helping the story to race along. The cast of peripheral characters is impressive with Picquart consorting with Emile Zola and future Prime Minister Clemenceau. Very enjoyable and informative.
The story is told by Georges Picquart one of the officers initially involved in the delivery of information that led to the miscarriage of justice. His efforts to clear Dreyfus of the spying allegations lay bare the inadequacies of high command. Harris acknowledges that no diary has been found written by Picquart but in allocating the role of narrator to him, we find a conflicted character keen not to compromise his career but forced to choose between the easy path of denial and the path of righteousness.
This was a book I could not put down and I read it in a day, so compelling was the storytelling. I am a Robert Harris afficionado having read 6 of his 8 novels.
The Statistical Section, the counter spies of the French Army, became of aware of someone giving Army secrets to the German embassy in Paris. Through their agents, they became certain that Dreyfus was the spy. The story starts with the initial court martial that found Dreyfus guilty and sent him off to Devils Island.
Picquart is then assigned to lead the Statistical Section. As time progresses and he sees the evidence that was used to convict Dreyfus was questionable at best, he begins a new investigation that leads to the revelation that the spy is still operating and he identifies him.
I will leave the rest of the story for you to discover. The book starts a little slow as all of the information is laid out for you regarding the background of the events. The story slowly picks up the pace. At the end the story has you engrossed and not wanting to put the novel down. If you love spy novels that concentrate on the thought process to discover the truth without all of the action, this is a good book for you.
Although Alfred Dreyfus hardly appears in the novel, the accusations of being a German spy, the trial that sent him for four miserable years to Devil’s Island, and the work of a small group of individuals who stood up for what they believed was right is the basic story. Dreyfus was an easy target for the French government’s accusations. He was a Jew and he simply wasn’t very likeable. Germany was a threatening, and the French Department of Intelligence was paranoid. The road to promotion in the government was narrow, dissenters were not permitted. As a new colonel, George Picquart understands the rules until the circumstances become so evident that an innocent man has been found guilty in a huge miscarriage of justice. The machinations of the Intelligence department are slowly unraveled as Picquart attempts to right the wrong even to the point of his own downfall.
At first it might be a bit confusing with all the French names and titles, but thanks to the list of characters provided, it soon becomes a thriller that is hard to put down.
Paris. 1895. The world stands on the brink of great changes with automobiles and planes in the near distant future, the greatest detective--Sherlock Holmes--will soon appear, and the gruesome murders of Jack the Ripper are close by. But even these pinnacles of achievements cannot overshadow the the travesty of Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer who was convicted of treason due to falsified evidence...and for being Jewish.
In this historical novel, Robert Harris brings the Dreyfus affair to life captivating readers from the very first pages until the very end. What could have been a dreary and boring recitation of facts comes to life as we ride along in the investigation of sabotage, treachery, and intrigue with Colonel Georges Picquart. Colonel Picquart discovered that the key piece of evidence against Dreyfus was falsified and in attempting to bring it to light, soon finds himself in the middle of a case far greater than he could have ever imagined. Warned to stay clear of the investigation or risk damage to his own career, Colonel Picquart ignores the threats to seek the truth and clear the name and career of Dreyfus. Picquart follows the clues to the very end...even though it may mean harm to himself, he will let justice prevail. Harris gives Picquart a compelling voice as we listen to him tell his story, and that of Dreyfus as well.
Harris is a master writer and has thoroughly research and documented this shameful part of France’s history, one that at one point they sought to hide. He shines light into the darkest places revealing that racism and antiSemitism were not given life by Hitler in World War II, but existed before that as well. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to any reader interested in historical fiction.
As tensions worsen between France and Germany, a source reveals that there is a French spy in the Army providing military information to Germany. The French spy is said to be a high ranking officer.
Maj. Alfred Dreyfus is accused and found guilty based on falsified evidence. One highly ranked officer was prominent in convincing others that Dreyfus was the guilty officer. The fact that Dreyfus was Jewish made it easier for the other officers to believe since anti-semitic feelings were strongly felt at the time.
Col. George Picquart tells the story from his point of view. He begins to doubt that evidence and when he learns the ID of the true spy, the Army Department would rather keep an innocent man in jail than admit that it made a mistake in the trial of Dreyfus.
The suspense is strongly felt as Picquart puts his own career on the line to convince others of Dreyfus's innocence and who the guilty officer really is. Picquart is sent to Tunis on a mission where his murder is planned.
The story continues and Dreyfus's many supporters rise to his defense led by Emile Zola who published an article J'Accuse where he points the finger at the real criminals in the matter.
Well done with characters out of history that tell their story with realism and literary excellence
Harris paints a vivid picture of fin-de-siecle Paris and middle class customs and mores. He gives a detailed look at how internal spying and security operations actually worked at this time. Even though the chronology, facts and eventual outcome are known, this book is full of suspense and intrigue, drawing this reader in to want to read just a few pages more every time I picked it up.