Thursday, January 30, 2014

An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris

“Kill the traitor! Kill the Jew!” These words rang out on the streets of Paris on the fifth of January 1895. As Captain Alfred Dreyfus was publicly degraded after being found guilty of espionage by a court martial. Dreyfus, a young artillery captain in the French army was accused of passing along military secrets to the German nation. Among those convinced of his guilt was a Major Georges Picquart. Picquart had been promoted to the head of the “Statistics Section.” This was the name of the military counter intelligence agency. Among his many duties his superiors told him to keep an eye out on the Dreyfus case. They wanted to make sure that no appeal would ever be able to stand.

Picquart did as he was told. That led to a problem.  As Picquart began to close in on another suspected spy he began to have doubts about the evidence used to convict Dreyfus. Before long he asked too many questions and was himself the target of the military establishment. Eventually the whole of France would be drawn into this affair and the repercussions would still be felt over a century later.

This is the story that bestselling author Robert Harris set out to tell. An Officer and A Spy is told in the first person by Colonel Picquart. The book is very well written with meticulous attention to detail. The world of late nineteenth century Paris comes vividly to life. We meet a fascinating cast of characters. In addition to the military officers we also meet Emile Zola, George Clemenceau, and many other influential figures from this era.

One of the most important aspects of the Dreyfus Affair is the that it served as a focal point for the rising anti-Semitism of the period. Harris covers this quite well, He brings out the open hostility of many in the military towards Jewish officers. I found one of his footnotes rather chilling when he pointed out that the officer in charge of the initial Dreyfus investigation was the father of the Vichy official in charge of Jewish affairs during the German occupation. In many ways the Dreyfus was the first glimpse of what was to come in the next century.

This is a great novel. As always, Harris keeps the action moving and the characters interesting. I highly recommend this book.

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