An Officer and a Spy : A Review

October 8, 2015

An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)

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.

Avi Davis is the president of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone

The Unpoliced World: A Review of Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat

December 3, 2014

        America in Retreat: the New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder

by Bret Stephens

Sentinel, 2014  231 pages

What would the world look like if America stopped investing its diplomatic and military resources in the troubled areas of the globe?

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has an idea.

The date is December 25, 2019, approaching Year Three of a Hillary Clinton presidency.   Two and a half years previously, China had covertly taken possession of Kinmen Island – a few miles off  the coast of Taiwan and within  the latter nation’s territorial waters.  Japan, witnessing the failure of the Americans to launch so much as a protest to this violation of international law in the U.N., begins to make overtures to long time enemy South Korea and a few months later, under cover of darkness, lands troops on the contested Senkaku Islands, a transparent attempt to forestall a Kinmen  style fate for its claimed territory.    Russia, already emboldened by uncontested invasions of Georgia and Ukraine a few years  before, has seen its economy cratered by falling gas prices and to shore up his sagging popularity Russian dictator Vladimir Putin stirs the coals of Russian nationalism, exploiting an internal rebellion in Belarus  by sending Russian tanks rolling into Minsk.  With Belarus now conveniently transformed into a Russian satellite, Putin turns his eyes westward to the NATO defended Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The Clinton Administration has not said boo to the previous acts but  is certain that Putin would never dare  attack a NATO ally. But then again………



Meanwhile, in Iran, long time Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has died leaving his son Mojtaba as the new Guardian Jurist.  Within months, uprisings in the Iranian provinces begin to wreak a general cleavage in the population and the Clinton brain trust, unwilling to relive the mistakes of the Obama Administration during Iran’s 2011 Green Revolution, begins to arm the insurgency.  This unfortunately has unintended consequences as Iran’s ruling mullahs find themselves forced to the wall.   When the insurgents attack the nuclear facilities at the Port of Bushehr, the West awakens to the reality that the collapsing regime’s new nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of even more desperate Islamic militants. There is urgent NATO( and Israeli)  talk about a multilateral force needed to invade Iran in order to secure the nuclear facilities.  This sets  the nervous mullahs on a war footing and contemplating the first belligerent use of a nuclear weapon since the detonation of the second  Atom Bomb at Nagasaki in 1945.

Israel at the same time is confronted with a renewed effort of Palestinians to bring attention to their demands for statehood, independent of an internationally sanctioned agreement. In a 100,000 person march on the Qalandiya Checkpoint, which separates Ramallah from Jerusalem, Palestinians, each bedecked with a neck key –  a poignant symbol of a right of return to purported ancestral  homes – the crowd attempts to break through the checkpoint.  The Israeli military response results in the death of twelve of the protesters and is caught on camera, and then labeled by  the international press  a massacre.  International sanctions pour in from around the world.  The U.S. Administration seeks  to deliver a stern message to the government of Israeli prime minister Moshe Ya’alon –  withdraw to the 1949 Armistice lines and allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state or else risk the resetting of diplomatic relations between Israel and U.S.  This only emboldens  the Palestinians who repeat the Keys Marches all over the West Bank seeking to provoke Israeli retaliation.                                                         

The European continent faces its own form of crisis. With consistently low growth over several years, Germany slips into recession and one of its most significant state owned banks collapses. The German government announces that it is unwilling to bear the crushing weight of European debt any longer as it nervously watches its other banks lose confidence. Just as Germany is reconsidering its role as European savior, many of the constituent nations of a united Europe begin to fall apart. Catalonia in Spain, Flanders in Belgium and the Veneto in Italy all seek to separate from the sinking ship of Europe in which they play such a crucial economic role and the resulting referendums bring about the ultimate devolutionary crisis that the Brussels bureaucracy cannot stem.

The upshot of this vivid scenario, which comes late in Stephens’ America in Retreat, is to illustrate the chaos which might ensue when the United States gives up any pretense of serving as the world’s policeman – a job it had grudgingly assumed upon Britain’s post war abdication of the role.  The scenario that Stephens paints draws directly from the experiences of the past six years as he demonstrates how the Obama Administration has consistently  sought to  distance itself from world events to the greatest extent possible, hiding behind multilateral actions and seeking to build international consensus instead of prosecuting a vigorous policy of its own.   This misguided agenda has produced a raft of unintended consequences, including the emboldening of a revanchist Russia, the strengthening of Iranian drive for nuclear power, the recrudescence of Chinese imperialism and the devolution of Europe.  It is the mantle that  Hilary Clinton, should she succeed in her presidential quest, will inherit.

But more troubling than this is the abandonment of stalwart democratic allies.  Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Japan, Taiwan and India all now have doubts as to the worth of American guarantees and the trustworthiness of its promises. Stephens spares no effort to demonstrate how devastating the volte face has been for America’s reputation and the likely consequences of allowing our allies to hang out to dry.

Such an abandonment traces its roots among American politicians of both left and right to the concept of ‘ Declinism’ – the theory that American power is on the wane and that the nation can no longer maintain much of its influence in world affairs. The ‘ America Come Home’ slogan, which has anchored U.S. foreign policy over the past the past six years, is a fundamental reflection of this ideology. The battle for the control of American foreign policy is always a contest between internationalists who want more engagement in the world and realists who seek less. That is nothing new. What is perhaps new and alarming in our present day, Stephens contends, is the abiding sense of national impotence that the Obama Administration continues to convey to the American people and to the world  – and which eclipses U.S. efforts to maintain a decisive influence in world affairs.

One factor that Stephens does unfortunately fail to mention is the Obama Administration’s resistance to drawing appropriate parallels from the 1938 Munich Agreement – the central  event in world history whose lessons would form the foundation of America’s post war foreign policy.   Every post-war president has at one time or another felt the need to  invoke the memory of  Munich –  a determination to never appease nor tolerate aggression  –  as a cornerstone of a muscular American world view. Obama has never once referred to it -not  in any speech nor in any writing. The glaring absence of this vital historical  lesson in the thinking of the Commander -in- Chief, has exposed the empty core of his philosophy.


The battle for the control of American foreign policy is always a struggle between internationalists who want more engagement in the world and realists who seek less.  That is nothing new.  What is perhaps new and alarming in our present day is the abiding sense of national impotence that  the Obama Administration continues to convey to the American people and to the world.

Stephens, whose witty, elegant prose in the Wall Street Journal has elevated him to the top echelons of American journalism (and last year won him the Pulitzer Prize), concludes his book with an analogy of the broken windows theory of policing. Expressed concisely it is the idea that increased police presence on our urban streets is in itself a deterrent to crime – enforcing community norms, punishing minor violations and maintaining a semblance of order. As with cities, so with nations. The institution of good policing prevents rogue nations exercising free rein and results in a global order which ultimately enhances American national interests.

The American performance of the role of the good cop walking a global beat was one of the key factors enabling the extraordinary spread of liberty and prosperity in the post- war world – at a level unknown in human history. It contributed decisively to the containment of communism with all its human miseries while facilitating the flow of free trade – which has been indispensable to worldwide economic growth. But we fool ourselves into believing that the world has settled into a modern day Shangri-la which requires no further monitoring. The internationalist and realist can both appreciate that the world is still a dangerous place, full of miscreants, rogues, liars and thieves – many of whom are committed to our undoing. If America forgets this and retreats from the world, it cannot be surprised when the chaos which then ensues one day washes up on its own shores.


This article was first published in Stubborn Things on December 3, 2014

Good William Hunting

April 25, 2010

If there’s at least one thing we are fairly confident about in William Shakespeare’s hazy biography, it is the date of  his birth.  The parish register of Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564.  Since baptisms in 16th Century England were traditionally celebrated three days following birth, we have come to accept that Shakespeare was born on  April 23rd of that year.

After this, things start to get murky.  We know nothing of his youth and education, what he read or his relationship with a father who was engaged in various forms of trade and seems, despite being elected an alderman and bailiff  ( the mid-16th Century equivalent of a mayor) to have had fluctuations in prosperity.   The next mention in the official record is of his marriage to Anne Hathaway at the age of 18 and the birth of his three children in the 1580s.  But what Shakespeare was actually doing during this decade, we know nothing.

His first appearance in London is only recorded in a sarcastic note penned by the playwright Richard Greene.  From then on we have little to munch on regarding Shakespeare’s private life, even if there exist official documents notarizing his land purchases and the performance of his plays.  We have his date of death and a will – a long document, signed in a shaky hand.  But little else remains of the flesh and blood man.

The dearth of  information on Shakespeare the man has mystified scholars for years.  It has plunged  biographers, academics, amateur historians and would be literary sleuths into an endless struggle over the question: Who was William Shakespeare?

Well since at least the 1850s it has been argued by a legion of skeptics that whoever was born in Stratford in April 1564 and died there 52 years later, was not the author of  the greatest works in English literature.   It  has been suggested, by no greater literary eminences than Mark Twain, Henry James,  Helen Keller and Sigmud Freud  –  among many lesser lights –  that the author of such soaring masterpieces as Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet must have been a man of great distinction, well traveled, schooled in many languages and close to the  Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts.  Twain, whose own authorial canon was drawn from the well spring of his own experiences, maintained the literary theory that all fiction is in essence autobiography.  And if this is the case, William Shakespeare of  the obscure village of Stratford, could not have been the same man who penned the immortal lines of a Hamlet or the soliloquies of  a King Lear.

If not William Shakespeare, then who?

This has been the literary community’s holy grail for centuries and the search has settled on two main contenders – the polymath and supreme Man of Letters, Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of  Oxford.  I am not going to go into the extensive arguments made for either man , only to contend that, to our knowledge, Bacon did not write plays and that his published poetry was inferior in quality to that of Shakespeare’s.  The other contender – de Vere,  who died in 1604, (which would put him beyond the capacity to have penned King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest) was reputedly a playwright and poet of high distinction, but since nothing in his own hand  has survived, we have had no opportunity to compare his skills with that of the much maligned glover’s son in distant Stratford.

There might be good reason to shake one’s head in disbelief at the level of sophistication required to write the Shakespearean canon.  As an enthusiast for Shakespearean drama since my early teens, the question that I have often asked is not whether Shakespeare could have written his own plays, but whether any human could have  done so?  So deep are their understanding of human nature, so filled with pathos and majesty of poetic expression, so given to consistency of character development and  brimming with vim and vitality (so that  the same characters appear to virtually lift off the page)  – that they leave flapping  in the dust any other playwright of his own time  –  or of any other time.  The endurance of the plays and the survival of their often archaic language  into our our day, offers the sneaking suspicion that the Shakespearean pen was guided by the light of Divine inspiration.

This is perhaps where all the Shakespearean skeptics have gone so wrong.   What they fail to account for is the power of the human imagination, which was perhaps perfected in the person of a low born boy from the West of England.   They fail to appreciate that even a child living  in the hovels of Calcutta, the barrios of Rio de Janiero or the windswept deserts of the Sahara, might have the capacity to stare out a window and dream of things he has never seen or experienced before.   That such imagination can lift him on a journey of exploration and provide him  with the power to shape in his own mind characters, conversations and scenes which he had never previously even contemplated, is beyond the ken of  their understanding.

We know nothing of William Shakespeare’s boyhood.   But is it not possible that a young, lonely boy spent his days day dreaming about kings and princes, fairies and goblins, castle moats and palace intrigues while playing in nearby fields and  forests  – and, with the support of parents lovingly aware of their son’s interests and gifts, provided  him with any book they could find to feed his insatiable need for detail and information?

Anyone who has written fiction and has had supportive parents, knows this experience.   The gift of William Shakespeare was that he took historical and mythical characters, drawn from books and pamphlets he might have read as a child  and molded them through an extraordinarily powerful imagination and a mature, refined intellect, into real life.  The skeptics, in the end, for want of documentary proof of Shakespeare’s exceptionalism, support the idea of the perpetration of the greatest hoax in literary history because they cannot accept  the reality of this genius.

Maybe he was indeed a fluke of history – given exactly the right time and environment for his genius to flourish.   Maybe these circumstances only converge once every 500 or 1,000 years.   Yet I firmly believe that there are or will be other young William Shakespeares, gazing at a cobblestone road or the sky from a bedroom window and dreaming  of distant lands and of people whom they may never meet, but seem to already know.   All they might need is a pen, paper and enough adult awareness to recognize the breadth of a child’s imagination and the power of their insight to shape and change the world.

%d bloggers like this: