An officer and a Spy
Alfred A. Knopf
2014, pp. 429, $27.95
by Richard Bernstein
Be wary of historical fiction, especially if it’s good. It will forever mix up in your mind what actually happened, or what we can be fairly certain happened, with the inventions of playwrights and novelists, whose aim might be to draw a deeper meaning from events than mere facts can provide, but who do some violence to those puny facts. Who among those who have watched Shakespeare’s Richard III will be led to read a careful historian’s biography? Can the historical Mozart and Salieri ever be as real as the Mozart and Salieri of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus?
Having expressed my misgivings, let me now praise Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy, a fictionalized narrative of the Dreyfus affair, perhaps the greatest, most gripping and significant scandal in history—certainly in Jewish and French history. Harris has written a terrific, heart-pounding novel, one that might even justify the historical novelist’s claim that an act of reimagination can get one closer to the truth than scrupulous research.
Harris’s book reads like a thriller, beautifully placed amid the rich details of belle époque France and rooted in the verifiable essential elements of the Dreyfus affair, which consumed France between 1894 and 1906 after Alfred Dreyfus, a rare Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongly convicted of spying for the Germans and disgraced in a public ceremony. Harris’s book will make you want to read more, perhaps Louis Begley’s penetrating Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, or—my choice if you could only read one book on this subject—Jean-Denis Bredin’s The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, published in its English translation nearly 30 years ago.
Harris tells the story of Dreyfus’s unjust persecution and exoneration 12 years later, in the voice of the first of the moral heroes who emerged, eventually, as the case unfolded. This is Marie George Picquart, a colonel in French army intelligence who discovered two years after Dreyfus’s trial that the spy was actually somebody else, a high-born but dissolute fellow officer named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Dreyfus had been convicted on the basis of a letter, known as the bordereau, sent to the intelligence chief in the German embassy in Paris and uncovered in his wastebasket by a cleaning woman/intelligence agent, that referred to several secret documents that the bordereau’s writer had given to the Germans.
Handwriting experts disagreed as to whether the letter was written by Dreyfus, but the court squared this circle with a bit of judicial sophistry: When the handwriting was deemed to resemble Dreyfus’s, the court took it as proof of his guilt. When it didn’t, the testimony was that Dreyfus had taken pains to disguise his handwriting, so the dissimilarity was also proof of his guilt.
Picquart’s discovery that the bordereau was written by Esterhazy was not welcomed by the French military establishment, and this fact is at the heart of Harris’s reconstruction of the story. Even when presented with the incontrovertible proof of Esterhazy’s guilt, the army, in the persons of the minister of war, the chief of the general staff and the intelligence chief, waged a desperate, unscrupulous, mendacious battle lasting over a decade to avoid having to admit its mistake. At one point in Harris’s retelling, Picquart brings a sample of Esterhazy’s handwriting to Alphonse Bertillon, one of the experts whose testimony helped to convict Dreyfus at his trial. Bertillon recognizes the new sample as identical to that of the bordereau. Picquart tells him that the sample couldn’t have been written by Dreyfus because it was written after Dreyfus was sent to distant Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America. “Then,” Bertillon calmly replies, “I would say that obviously the Jews have managed to train someone else to write using the Dreyfus system.”
Did this conversation actually happen? Probably not, and therefore one’s rage at Bertillon may not be entirely justified. But that most likely invented comment by Bertillon perfectly illustrates the essential point of Dreyfus’s Jewishness. It is not mainly what got him convicted in the first place. A non-Jew caught in the same thin strands of circumstantial evidence, combined with the eagerness of the French high command to find a culprit and make an example of him, might have been found guilty as well.
But once the evidence was uncovered that Dreyfus was innocent, all the ancient prejudices about the Jews surged into the public sphere—their wealth, their secret cabalistic influence, their supposed mendacity, their tribal loyalty, the impossibility that they could ever be quintessentially or loyally French. Dreyfus wasn’t innocent; rather, Picquart had been bought by the Jews. When Esterhazy, put on trial for treason, was, despite the overwhelming evidence against him—including Picquart’s precise, factual, damning testimony—found not guilty, there was public rejoicing in the streets, mobs shouting “Death to the Jews.” Beyond that, the army, in its frantic, clever and ruthless effort to cover up its initial mistake, cynically relied on French anti-Semitism to make its charge against Dreyfus, and its demonization of Picquart, stick. The irony is that the army, the embodiment of French patriotism, loyalty to la patrie, preferred to extol Esterhazy, whom they knew to be the real traitor, and to present him as a victim of the unscrupulous Jews, than to admit that the Jew Dreyfus had been wrongly and cruelly imprisoned.
Harris did his research: All the major elements of the case are here, from the French spying on the German embassy, to the police agent who, at Picquart’s request, shadowed Esterhazy and discovered his visits to the German embassy, to the two sham trials of Dreyfus and the single trial of Esterhazy, also a sham. Harris invents numerous conversations, but often these are based on real events. Picquart, according to Bredin, really did have an old friend from the Saint-Cyr Military Academy who was serving in Esterhazy’s regiment, and who told Picquart that Esterhazy led a dissolute life and was always in need of money—though for some reason Harris places the meeting between Picquart and his friend in Rouen rather than Paris, where it is more likely to have taken place. Harris’s portrayals of the other key figures in the story are deft and convincing, from the heroic Emile Zola, author of the Dreyfusard classic J’accuse, to Major Hubert Joseph Henry, the deceitful, ingratiating intelligence officer who forged a key document “proving” Dreyfus’s guilt.
Did Picquart, a bachelor, have a passionate love affair with one Pauline Monnier, the wife of a friend? Probably not. At any rate, Monnier’s name is absent from Bredin’s index. Did Picquart write a secret account of the affair and store it in a bank vault, to be given to the president of France in case of his death? In an author’s note, Harris acknowledges that this is pure fiction, though it is a useful fiction, illustrating Picquart’s conviction that the army would not stop at murdering him. Did Picquart and Dreyfus meet when it was all over, Dreyfus restored to his rank and Picquart now minister of war, during which meeting Picquart tells Dreyfus that if it hadn’t been for him, Dreyfus, he would never have attained a cabinet-level rank? This too seems to be an invention, but it tells a truth nonetheless, as does Harris’s account of Dreyfus’s response: “No, my General, you attained it because you did your duty.”
For sticklers about historic fact, this comingling of documented truth and plausible invention remains bothersome, though much less bothersome than it would be had Harris played with the underlying meaning of the Dreyfus affair, or if his novel had been less skillfully done. In fact, it is brilliantly done. I read An Officer and a Spy with white knuckles, even though I already knew the story and where it was heading. As historical fiction goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His new book, China 1945, is out now.