Even before the book proper has begun, Robert Harris states that his subject, The Dreyfus Affair, was “perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history.” Not just the 19th and 20th Century, not just in France, French history, in all history. That’s an incredibly big sell the book has to live up to and could, given that you or I could go out on the street right now and spend a couple of hours (or more), stopping every single person we met, before we find someone who thinks they, might, possibly, maybe, think they know someone who (etc) has heard of Alfred Dreyfus, or ’The Affair.’ However, when the author doing the selling, is Robert Harris and the affair’s place in European history become apparent, you may well be more than inclined to go with him this once. Personally, I knew a little about the Dreyfus Affair, well, make that a very little. OK, I knew next to nothing. But I had heard of it and I did know it was quite a big deal to the French.
The book begins in 1894 and we are led through the Dreyfus affair, chronologically, by Georges Picquart. He is a Major as the book opens and is present at Dreyfus’ Court Marshal and ‘degradation.’ You’ll have seen similar in cowboy films, where the army person has his epaulettes ripped off, his sword broken in two over the knee, etc. Dreyfus is accused and is quickly found guilty of, passing secrets to the Germans in Paris. He is imprisoned on the welcomingly named, ‘Devil’s Island.’ His island, one of three that go under the name ‘Devil’s Island’ was off the coast of French Guyana (off the north coast of South America), was roughly 35 acres in size, but even that wasn’t small enough forthe Army and consequently Dreyfus. He was guarded and watched night and day, kept in solitary confinement, often in total silence, in a small hut, often chained to his ‘bed.’ His correspondence, in and out, was read and censored and his health deteriorated accordingly. He was clearly guarded so closely, even on his tiny rock of nothing in the middle of nowhere, so the French Army could keep him from convincing anyone of his innocence and thereby, their guilt. They hoped the French people and then they, could forget he ever existed. Which makes you wonder why they arrested him in the first place, however logic doesn’t infringe on the Army’s thinking too often in this story.
Back in Paris, Picquart, an conscientious, likeable character according to Harris’ depiction, is promoted and put in charge of the ’Statistical Department.’ Really, the counter-espionage department. He wasn’t told to keep his hands off the Dreyfus case, because they didn’t see why anyone should have any problems with a German spy being convicted of treason and punished appropriately. Especially a Jewish one. And especially as Picquart was a good Army man and knew how to behave as such. As the months wear on, reports coalesce of another French Army officer spying for the Germans, one Ferdinand Esterhazy. Picquart just does his job, gathers information, and comes to the inescapable conclusion that Esterhazy was/is the real spy and that Dreyfus is/was a scapegoat. When he makes his theories clear to those above him – his problems start.
I’ll leave that set up there, because you really should read the book. There is a lot about the affair on Wikipedia, but if you can keep yourself away from that and maybe wait until you’ve read this, you can fill in any background knowledge and get even more of a feeling of what the whole affair meant to France and so later European history.
Having read a lot about the affair after finishing, I can safely say that even this superb book can’t fully do justice to the impact it seems The Dreyfus Affair had on the French consciousness. As the 100 year anniversary of the final judgement was marked by a ceremony led by French President Chirac in 2006, clearly its effects are still felt strongly today. Obviously, as the reluctant driving force behind the Army investigation and exoneration of Dreyfus, Picquart comes out of it quite well. He is a likeable man, maybe a bit old-fashiond, even for the time and is the book’s main character. He wants to believe the Army’s reasons for putting Dreyfus away, but can’t once he sees the evidence. He can’t un-see it. He abides by the Army code of not rocking the boat, with regards to communicating the ‘problems’ to people outside the Army, until he is fired and the attacks on him – physical as well as his character – begin for real. Then, in a moment that reminded me of The Count of Monte Cristo, the gloves come off.
The Army top brass, of course, come out of it all very badly. They were rabidly anti-Semitic (though in that, only mirrored the attitude French public at large), old-fashioned in a bad way and they disobeyed the First Commandment of When Finding Yourself in a Hole: “(Thou Shalt) Stop digging.” A lie to cover a lie, to cover two lies, then loses touch with the first lie and is easily uncovered. So more lies are needed and invented. People higher up the chain, made it clear that those down the chain, should toe the line. Some of those lower down, realising it is in their best interests to do so and may even advance their careers, did the inventing of lies they hoped would please their bosses. Clearly, as is hinted at several times here, the Army’s position was that they didn’t need, shouldn’t need to, explain their actions. Or the reasoning behind those actions, to anyone. Least of all the French People. The Army’s position was that they were Gentlemen and a Gentleman’s word is enough evidence, even for a Court of Law. They were naive, but not in a cute way and didn’t learn from the ‘humiliating’ 1870 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. They didn’t see which way the world – and Prussia/Germany – was going. Picquet didn’t either, to be fair, but he was at least just doing his job and flexible enough in attitude, to move with the times. Everyone higher up than Picquart at the start, either knew is was/would be a miscarriage of justice before Dreyfus was convicted and/or wouldn’t/didn’t want to do anything after the actual facts were known. Because it would show them, the army, the justice system, the government, France itself, in a bad light. Better to sweep it under the carpet, forget about Alfred Dreyfus and show that the system worked.
Robert Harris doesn’t seem to have had any particular kind of axe to grind here. He doesn’t seem to have had a pre-writing agenda. It’s a fascinating and absurd case, with built-in twists and turns, ups and downs – not to mention downright bare-faced lying, that must be the envy of many a modrn novelist. He may well just have thought he’d put together a clear narrative for the modern reader, letting the natural excitement, background and repercussions speak for themselves.