Monday 16 December 2013

The Dreyfus Affair For Our Times: Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large on December 14. I include it in these blogs because, although the Dreyfus Affair is not included in the final product of That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012), I originally conceived of comparing the anti-Semitism in France with the homophobia during the Wilde trials in England. Instead I have previously published two blogs on The Affair. The following review is my third.

“The most frightful judicial error that has ever been made.”
                                                                 —Alfred Dreyfus

Robert Harris is both prolific and versatile. A former journalist, best known for his 1986 account of the hoax surrounding Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries turned to penning novels that generally fall within three categories: alternative history such as t is contemplating a détente with America, and Archipelago (1998) that plays with the conceit that a diary purporting to be that of Stalin chronicles his relationship with a young woman who shortly before his death provided him with a son, one that is alive and in the 1990s is being groomed to seize power; thrillers such as The Ghost (2007) that takes as its premise the story of a professional ghost writer who is hired to replace a predecessor who drowned under mysterious circumstances, and then is assigned the task of completing the memoirs of a recently resigned Prime Minister that will counter the suspicions of war crimes he committed during the Iraq war, and Fear Index (2012) inspired by the global financial meltdown and with a nod to the Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, about a hedge fund operator who has designed computer software which uses artificial intelligence to trade on fear that for a time makes huge profits for its investors until the computer begins to operate on its own independent of human control; historical novels on ancient Rome, Pompeii (2003) and the first two novels of the trilogy that focuses on the orator and politician, Cicero, Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009). His most recent offering, An Officer and a Spy (Random House, 2013), about the notorious injustice visited upon Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer in fin de siècle France, fits within the last genre.

When a torn-up bordereau or memorandum that a cleaning woman had retrieved from the wastebasket of the German military attaché indicated that someone was offering to sell low-level secrets to the Germans, suspicion fell upon Alfred Dreyfus because his handwriting supposedly matched that written on the bordereau. Yet he wasn’t short of money and wasn’t entangled with women, two of the most frequent motives for espionage. Regardless, an arrogant military caste needed a scapegoat and Dreyfus was convenient. He was an Alsatian, therefore had German sympathies, was standoffish and generally disliked by the officer class and, perhaps of greater import, he was Jewish. (I say perhaps because there is an emerging historical consensus that Dreyfus's Jewishness became a major issue only after he was convicted and the anti-Semitic press seized upon his Jewish descent). He was subjected to a bewildering interrogation, placed under arrest, and in the secret star-chamber trial that followed he was never permitted to know the actual charges against him. After being convicted of espionage, he endured the public humiliation of being stripped of his military insignia to the taunts of “Death to the Jews” from the braying mob and was shipped out for a life of solitary confinement on Devils Island. That fate was averted only because of the tenacious efforts of a small group of individuals who became convinced that he had been a victim of an egregious miscarriage of justice. Most people who know something about what became known as The Affair likely learned about it because of the courageous efforts of Emile Zola and his sensational expose, J’accuse, his famous open letter to the President of the Republic in which he named members of the military for their involvement in railroading Dreyfus or their part in the subsequent cover up. They may have seen Paul Muni as Zola in the overrated 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola
Alfred Dreyfus
In his provocative, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, (Harvard University Press, 2013), Ben Urwand argues that Hollywood studios, in an effort to protect the German market for their movies, not only acquiesced to Nazi censorship but also actively cooperated with that regime’s global propaganda effort. During the 1930s, Georg Gyssling, Hitler’s consul in Los Angeles, was invited to preview films before they were released. If Gyssling objected to any part of a movie—and he frequently did—the offending scenes were cut. As a result, according to Urwand, the Nazis had total veto power over the content of Hollywood movies. Among the cuts requested by Gyssling was that the word “Jew” not be spoken in The Life of Emile Zola. Jack Warner acceded to that request. Only in a scene that a member of the General Staff fingers Dreyfus from a list of names can the viewer spot the word "Jew" listed for the officer’s religion. Urwand remarks that “this one second shot turned out to be one of the few explicit references to a Jew in American cinema for the remainder of the 1930s.” In the film, Zola does not allude to the anti-Semitism that poisoned France at the time. It is merely about a wrongly-convicted man without any personal or cultural context. Anyone watching would have no idea that the crowds hostile to Dreyfus were anti-Semitic.

Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through Colonel Georges Picquart, a high-flying young officer, who acted as observer for the Minister of War, General Mercier, during the court martial of Dreyfus, before his appointment as the head of the French secret service, euphemistically named Statistical Section. Picquart may be known to those who saw Ken Russell’s coherently directed 1991 television film, Prisoner with Honor, which starred Richard Dreyfuss as Picquart. Harris adds substantially to our understanding of the principled and intelligent officer in An Officer and a Spy. It is extensively researched by the author who draws upon generations of secondary sources, notably the 2010 acclaimed monograph, Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion and the Scandal of the Century, by Oxford historian Ruth Harris (no relation) and from primary sources that include Dreyfus’s letters and memoir, court transcripts, newspaper reports and the French government’s recent decision to make available online all the secret files relating to the case. He provides a three-dimensional portrait of a widely-literate Picquart—he read Tolstoy in Russian while in prison—took delight in the visual arts and in music, as well as detailing the machinations of the military cabal that perpetrated and then covered up this injustice. We come to know Dreyfus mostly through his correspondence to his wife when it is intercepted and read by Picquart who incorporates the purloined private missives into his secret journal that comprises the whole book—a brilliant fictional vehicle—that is written in the first person present tense. As narrator, Picquart sets the scene, explaining the complexities of the original case against Dreyfus and the rising feelings of anti-Semitism in France.

Convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt at the beginning, in part because he believed in the righteousness of the army that he had served all his adult life and in part because he shared the casual anti-Semitic prejudices of his culture, Picquart slowly starts to realise that the defrocked captain is innocent. When in a position to examine the evidence he finds that it is thin and ambiguous. His disquiet increases when he finds that another man, Major Esterhazy, has been passing low level intelligence to Germany and that his handwriting is identical to that in the original bordereau. He reports his discovery to his superiors. They tell him to bury it. If Esterhazy is guilty, then Dreyfus is innocent, and to admit a miscarriage of justice in the case of Dreyfus will do irreparable harm to the army in critical times. Picquart protests against this sacrifice of an innocent man, and as an honest patriot is shocked by the military hierarchy who close ranks, determined to preserve its reputation. “Really.” he is told, “when all is said and done, what does it matter to you if one Jew stays on Devil’s Island?” As Picquart embarks on a Kafkaesque struggle to convince his colleagues and superiors of Dreyfus’s innocence and Esterhazy’s guilt, the novel becomes most absorbing and resonant to our own times: what happens to whistleblowers who challenge powerful institutions. As Picquart sets out to discover the truth that threatens to end his career, he soon finds himself in the same position as the man he is trying to help, when he is framed by forged documents and perjured testimony that proclaimed the innocence of Esterhazy and the guilt of Dreyfus.

Colonel Georges Picquart
A career soldier Picquart gradually finds intelligence work distasteful and longs to return to “real” soldiering. Eventually Picquart is posted to Tunisia, where he is saved from what would have been a suicide mission ordered from Paris by a sympathetic fellow colonel who delays the mission and allows Picquart to secretly return to France. There he contacts a trusted lawyer. Within a short time, although Picquart experiences personal setbacks when he is cashiered out of the army and spends time in prison for military insubordination, the tide is beginning to turn. Zola’s ringing manifesto and politicians like Georges Clemenceau begin to mount support for Dreyfus. These men, who became known as Dreyfusards, make only cameo appearances in the novel as does Alfred Dreyfus, but Harris vividly etches the strained relationship between Picquart and Dreyfus. Harris gives much more attention to the different generals, who Picquart slowly realizes are appallingly corrupt, especially to the second in command in the shadowy intelligence department, and subsequent successor, Major Joseph Henry.

Harris provides a not totally unsympathetic portrait of Henry who does everything he can to undermine Picquart, even forging a letter that allegedly confirmed Dreyfus’s guilt. Henry is so committed to the military and will do anything to please his superiors and yet eventually appears deeply troubled by these events even before his forgery is exposed and he is sent to prison. There he commits suicide, a death that unsettles Picquart even though they frequently fought, on one occasion a duel. I think that Harris missteps when he has Picquart muse that Henry might have been murdered to keep him quiet when no historian has suggested this possibility. I say this because those familiar with the Dreyfus Affair will be greatly impressed by the skill with which Harris weaves historical facts into his fictional narrative. His complex portrait of Henry does not need that melodramatic touch.

The story is clearly a very rich and searing one, exposing the determination of military and political leaders to cover up their errors at all costs to preserve the official version of events. More profoundly, it also reveals the bigotry that foreshadowed the genocidal horror of the twentieth century. But An Officer and a Spy also chronicles the efforts of others, some of them anti-Semitic, that put their careers at risk and in some cases their lives to right a terrible wrong. The novel also underscores how a secret intelligence agency will attempt to destroy the careers and lives of anyone within that community who believes that its actions violate the constitution and the laws of a given country.

Consider the case of Thomas Drake who spent almost twenty years at the National Security Agency. He was called an enemy of the state and charged with espionage, and if convicted could have faced thirty-five year prison sentence for talking to the press about the illegalities that occurred at the NSA even though he did not disclose classified documents. The government case collapsed before the trial began. He is now speaking out publicly about his ordeal and the threat that the NSA and other secret intelligence services pose not only to the privacy of citizens in the name of national security but also how they violate the laws and the constitution of different countries. The ongoing revelations of Edward Snowden, who credits Drake as his inspiration, only confirms Drake’s message. 

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