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An officer and a spy

September 2, 2015

I was chatting to an old friend recently – old in both senses of the word – and was surprised to learn that he had not heard of the infamous Dreyfus Affair – a scandal that rocked France and was reported around the world before the turn of the 19th century, in 1894.

dreyfusCaptain Alfred Dreyfus was an insignificant Army Officer who, when a French spy for the Germans was about to be exposed, was ruthlessly framed with forgeries, and became the scapegoat for the real traitor. Dreyfus was a career officer, hard-working but uninspiring – he was also a Jew. France, or the French, were prone to anti-Semitism at all levels of society and Dreyfus was  court-marshalled, publically stripped of his uniform and medals and sent to be imprisoned for life on a tiny rock off the north coast of South America aptly called Devils Island.

I am recounting this story because though it has been written up by many authors in all its horrifying truth, Robert Harris has turned it into an excellent novel called ‘An Officer and a spy’. Published in 2013, it is worthy to be read by many, as Harris is an accomplished novelist having written a dozen books before this including – Fatherland, The Ghost and The Fear Index.

Harris chooses to centre his story on George Picquart who heads the secret intelligence unit responsible for Dreyfus’ arrest. This young Colonel gradually becomes doubtful of the case against the Captain and the novel traces his subsequent investigations, actions and persistent reports to his superiors who clearly want the Dreyfus case closed and forgotten.

I thoroughly enjoyed this fictionised true story and Harris has made a first class job of retelling the awful tale in this way. If you have not come across this episode in recent history you will find this account all the more compelling. It is a reminder of what happens when corrupt men of power pervert justice in the name of ‘national security’ in order to cover up the crimes of one of their own. This miscarriage of justice reverberated around the world until, finally, Dreyfus was released in 1906 and reinstated.

 

Larry

 

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