It is now 80 years since the death of Alfred Dreyfus and 120 years since the end of l’affaire which bore his name. When most people think of this tragic episode in fin-de-siècle France they usually conjure, not images of the defenestrated Jewish officer who became a scapegoat for the French military’s intelligence lapses, but rather of an Austrian journalist covering the trial, who, sickened by the anti-semitic tauntings of the Parisian crowds, soon became the founder of the national political movement known as Zionism.
But Theodor Herzl, as romantic and fascinating a lead character as he might have suggested, does not appear at all in Robert Harris’ latest work An Officer and a Spy, his fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair. In fact, the tornado of antisemitism, which tore through France and swirled around Dreyfus and his two trials in the late 1890s, barely plays any role at all. While there are gratuitous references to mobs screaming “Death to the Jews” and “Kill the Jew Traitor” and deprecatory references by the French High Command to the hated “Jew” Dreyfus, this appears as little more than background noise in the propulsive narrative and not a central focus.
By and large the antisemitism of the age is less a concern for the novelist than is the character of his central protagonist, Colonel Georges Picquart.
Picquart, who became the effective head of French Intelligence in the wake of the first Dreyfus trial is the novel’s first person narrator and central character. His counter-espionage investigations reveal that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and that the real spy, who had delivered military secrets to the German General Staff in 1894, was a French major, desperate for cash and low on loyalty. But the French High Command had pinned its flags to the Dreyfus mast and so they decided to dig in. Picquart was quickly quarantined and then sent on pointless intelligence gathering missions to the south of France and then onward to Tunisia where he wasted away for months in a lonely frontier outpost while the High Command conspired to send him on suicide missions into North Africa’s deserts.
Picquart retaliated by becoming one of the first of modern whistle blowers and through his lawyer would inform both the French intelligentsia as well as the radical left of the scandal, both of whom would seize upon the cover- up to draw attention to the corruption of the Nationalists in the French parliament. The roar of outrage grew into a crescendo when novelist Emile Zola published his famous front page essay, J’accuse which would not only directly name the individual French generals responsible for the miscarriage of justice, but would land Zola himself in a heap of trouble as the libel suits poured in.
Throughout the languidly paced novel, which revolves largely around the sensational trials of the period, we meet some handsomely drawn characters: the florid Major Hubert- Joseph Henry, Picquart’s second- in-command, who plays a central role in the attempt to frame Dreyfus; The calculating and politically ambitious General Auguste Mercier, French Minister of War, who leads the cover up and never ceases, until the day he dies, to express his belief in Dreyfus’ guilt; Pauline Monnier, Picquart’s long time mistress, who gets caught up in the scandal and almost loses her family as a result and Fernand Labori, attorney to Zola, Picquart and Dreyfus, who just avoids death from an assassin’s bullet.
In the epicenter of this tumult is, of course, the character of Alfred Dreyfus himself , whose ordeals on Devil’s Island, off the coast of Guyana in South America are recounted through the verbatim correspondence ( often sequestered by French Intelligence and not always delivered to their intended address) between the incarcerated prisoner and his wife, over a period of four years. His words describe a hell hole where the prisoner endures endless privation and restrictions and which might have driven a less stoic and courageous man to suicide.
But Dreyfus’ self-belief and his perfervid conviction that French justice would ultimately prevail, were enough to prevent his collapse into depression or send him into a death spiral. He survives to be vindicated and restored to his former command.
The story is in many ways a narrative tour de force, and although ponderous at times, still drives the reader hungrily onward with the question of what will become of both Picquart and Dreyfus, whose fates become curiously intertwined.
Still, well acquainted with the history of the time, I come back to the many pages left inexplicably blank in the book, pages that could well have been filled in with descriptions of the rancor and hatred on the street for Jews , investigating the breadth of its hold on the French imagination and how such antagonism could not only survive, but flourish in so-called enlightened 19th Century France.
Alas, you will not find much of this in An Officer and a Spy.
For a real grasp of that animus we need to look beyond Harris and refer to the words of Emile Zola himself, written in 1896, even before the full impact of the Dreyfus trials would steamroll France, foreshadowing some of the horrors of the approaching century:
” For several years I have followed, with growing surprise and revulsion, the campaign against Jews in France. I see it as a monstrosity, by which I mean something outside the pale of common sense, of truth and justice, a blind, fatuous thing that would push us back centuries, a thing that would lead to the worst abominations, religious persecutions with blood shed over all countries.”
It stupefied him that that such fanaticism should have erupted:
” In our age of democracy, of universal tolerance , when the movement everywhere is toward equality, fraternity and justice, we are at the point of effacing boundaries, of dreaming the community of all peoples, of holding religious congresses where priests of every persuasion embrace, of feeling that common hardship unites us in brotherhood. And a bunch of madmen, of imbeciles of knaves, has chosen this moment to shout at us: ‘Let’s kill the Jews, lets devour them, lets massacre, lets exterminate, lets bring back stakes and dragonnades.’
Zola, in these words, was painting a picture of a civilization which beneath its veneer of elegance, élan and openness was sick to its core. This is a characterization only hinted at in Harris’ novel – and a sorely missed opportunity it is.
Nevertheless, An Officer and a Spy leaves a nerve tingling sense of how even the most sophisticated and accomplished of civilizations can verge on collapse when a maniacal hatred of the other obtains a grip on its consciousness and then tips it off kilter.
In our present day and age one might refer to any number of parallel political climates where conformity of views is demanded and dissent systematically persecuted. Certainly our College campuses, particularly in regard to it raging anti-Zionism ofer a compelling analogy to intolerant, hypocritical 19th Century France. The re-emergence of rampant antisemitism in Europe, driven by Muslim fanaticism and yet unimpeded by enlightened European opinion and activism, is a cause for extreme concern.
But we might also compare the case of”climate skeptics” – those individuals who voice doubts or present scientific data which contradict claims of anthropogenic global warming and are vilified, ridiculed and howled down as “deniers” and “traitors” by academics, the press and even political leaders.
Thus when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island seriously suggests that climate skeptics should be subject to criminal indictment or when the New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan proclaims that the NYT may well begin referring, as her paper’s policy, to climate contrarians as “deniers,” we might all begin to hear the echo of those Parisian streets of 130 years ago and shudder with the possible consequences.