It was sheer coincidence that in the week that Nelson Mandela died, and having been musing on integrity and courage, I read Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy. No obvious connection, one might think, between the death of a South African leader and a historical novel set in France at the end of the last century. Wrong.
An Officer and a Spy is the story of Georges Picquart, one of the key players in the fight to win the freedom of Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, and who suffered humiliation, disgrace and imprisonment himself along the way. The fascinating thing about this story, and where it differs most profoundly from that of Mandela, is that whereas Mandela, as a young black man in apartheid South Africa, was aware every hour of every day of the injustice that he confronted, Picquart was an establishment man, an army man, who trusted the chain of command and was trusted by it. But he reached a point when he said, ‘that is not right’, and from that point on, he did not stop, even when it appeared he might lose everything.
Picquart did not start by believing in the innocence of Dreyfus. He had no predisposition to see conspiracy, or prejudice, at work. He became uneasy, as he discovered tiny details which didn’t quite fit with the established version of events, but his crusade began when he realised not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but that the establishment knew this, and had no intention of doing anything about it, but would allow him to continue to suffer on Devil’s Island, whilst the real guilty party (also known to the powers that be) retained his freedom, his army post, his salary.
Picquart wasn’t motivated either by personal fondness for Dreyfus (he knew him, and didn’t like him particularly), nor out of lifelong principled opposition to the anti-semitism which allowed Dreyfus to be made a scapegoat and his guilt to be so easily believed (he shared the low-level anti-semitic assumptions of his era and his class, assuming that Jews put loyalty to their own kind above loyalty to the country they lived in). His heroism lies precisely in those facts. Once he suspected that an injustice had been done he had to know, and once he knew, he had to act. He was demoted, sent abroad to high risk postings, kept under surveillance, his mail opened and his family and friends investigated. He was himself accused and imprisoned, only vindicated when Dreyfus himself was freed. He never faltered.
I won’t reprise the story of the Dreyfus affair here, because (a) it’s complicated and (b) you’ll have far more fun reading the account in Robert Harris’s novel.
My own interest in it resides partly in its place in French history and culture. Two of my favourite writers played a part in the story – Emile Zola of course produced the famous article ‘J’accuse’, in defence of Dreyfus, and was convicted of libel and removed from the Legion d’Honneur as a result.
And reading Proust made me aware for the first time how one’s take on Dreyfus’s innocence or guilt defined one, and divided society – dreyfusard or anti-dreyfusard, pretty much all of his characters are self-declared as one or the other. As Boyd Tonkin wrote recently in The Independent:
In many ways, the Dreyfus Affair lends In Search of Lost Time its moral spine. For Proust the Dreyfusard, who organised a petition in support of the tormented prisoner on Devil’s Island and avidly attended the 1898 trial of Émile Zola for criminal libel after he published his famous denunciation “J’Accuse”, attitudes to Dreyfus not only split the social milieu he depicts down the middle. They test and define the mettle of his main characters. To the Proust scholar Malcolm Bowie, the case gave Proust his “great experimental laboratory”. It runs like a live wire through those seven volumes.
It clearly also is a fascinating episode in the history of prejudice and anti-semitism. The case played its part in the founding of Zionism as a political force, as Theodor Herzl said:
“if France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated”
Herzl was proved right in the case of France, as only 36 years after Dreyfus was finally pardoned, and 7 years after his death, Jews were being rounded up on the streets of Paris, herded into transit camps and then into cattle trucks before being deported to Auschwitz. Then, as there had been during the Dreyfus affair, there were people who were driven by hatred, people who colluded in injustice out of fear or complacency but also, throughout that dark time, people like Picquart, who were unable to be passive in the face of such injustice and evil, and who risked everything to stand against it.
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, 2013)
- dreyfus still an affair (3quarksdaily.com)