The Other Hero of the Dreyfus Affair

Robert Harris has turned the famous affair into a compelling thriller – now being made into a Roman Polanski film – by focusing on the man who insisted that justice be done.

David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

When his friend and sometimes-collaborator Roman Polanski suggested to Robert Harris that the two of them work together on a movie about the Dreyfus Affair, the novelist was not immediately enthralled. He realized that the case, from the initial trial and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus on charges of spying for Germany, until his final exoneration, went on for 12 years and had a confusingly large cast of characters. Harris also was already committed to writing the third volume of his “Cicero trilogy,” to follow “Imperium” (2006) and “Lustrum” (titled “Conspirata” in the U.S., 2010), in which the secretary of the great Roman orator and politician tells the story of his master and of the final years of the Roman Republic.

Once Harris began, however, to read about the Dreyfus case – the story of a Jewish army captain who was framed in 1894 for another man’s crime, and was spared from an ignominious death in a French prison camp thanks only to the selfless and uncompromising efforts of a fellow officer – he was hooked. He knew he had to write a book – not so much about Alfred Dreyfus, but focused, rather, on Col. Georges Picquart, his savior – and he asked Polanski if he would mind if the book came out before the movie. Polanski graciously agreed.

“Immediately, I saw this dark, espionage, whistle-blowing story at the center,” said Harris, in a Skype interview this week from his home in Kintbury, West Berkshire, England. He believes that Picquart – who, once he understood that Dreyfus had been the victim of a conspiracy, would not rest until he saw justice done – is “the only figure who really lives out an extraordinary story.”

Now, Harris, the 56-year-old author of such highly successful novels as “Fatherland,” “Archangel” and “Pompeii,” has turned Picquart’s tale into an extraordinarily compelling thriller: “An Officer and a Spy” (UK: Hutchinson, £19; U.S.: Alfred A Knopf, $27.95). That’s an accomplishment, considering that nearly everything that happens in the book is based on the public record, and any reader is perfectly capable of knowing how the story ends before reading the first sentence.

Of course, Dreyfus – the 35-year-old Alsatian-born Jew who had an impeccable record as a young artillery officer but was widely despised, not least because he was well-off and Jewish – went through a nightmarish and appalling experience. Coming of age in an era after Emancipation, he was one of the first Jews given the opportunity to enter the French army’s officers corps. He was an excellent student, married well and was moving up the ranks, even as he alienated nearly everyone who crossed his path.

Perhaps then it was not surprising that, in the summer of 1894, when French intelligence received evidence that an officer was passing military secrets to the German enemy, suspicion quickly fell upon Dreyfus.

The popular canard about Jews’ lack of national loyalty had wide frequency in fin-de-siecle France. Still smarting from their defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, in which their country lost possession of Alsace and Lorraine, Dreyfus’ superiors were quick to accept the theory that, with family still living in that region, Dreyfus had transferred his loyalty to Germany. What still shocks, however, is that long after it had become clear that the evidence did not support the charges against Dreyfus, some of the top figures in the military establishment – including the defense minister and his successor, the chief of staff and several top intelligence officials – refused to back down, fabricated evidence and carried out a campaign of deceit and intimidation to cover up their lie.

To shut him up, and in the hope that he would die in captivity, they had Dreyfus, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, sent to the most remote and forbidding prison in the French empire – Devil’s Island, off the Atlantic coast of South America – which they took out of mothballs in order to accommodate him as its lone inmate.

Little sympathy for Jews

Despite the drama of his circumstances, though, Dreyfus himself was weirdly passive. (Leon Blum, who several decades later became France’s first Jewish prime minister, once wondered about him, “Had he not been Dreyfus, would he himself have been a Dreyfusard?”) Of course, Harris notes correctly, he was not in a position to do much for himself: “By necessity, everyone else has to act to save him.”

So, as far as the writer is concerned, “the only person who really acts in a most interesting way is Picquart.”

“An Officer and a Spy,” published earlier this week in the United States, purports to be the secret diary kept by Piquart during the affair’s dramatic first five years. (Aside from the fact that Picquart is not known to have kept such a diary, everything in the book, and all of its characters, has its basis in the historical record.) What makes him so interesting is not only his intelligence, integrity and courage, but the added twist that he didn’t especially like Dreyfus, who several years earlier had been a student of his at the Ecole Superieure de Guerre. Piquart also was not immune to harboring the prejudices held by many Frenchmen of that era about Jews in general.

Dreyfus complained to Picquart about the low grade he received from him in topography, and suggested openly that it was based on anti-Semitism. Picquart responded, in Harris’ telling: “If you are asking, Captain, whether I like Jews particularly, the honest answer I suppose would be no. But if you are implying that because of that I might discriminate against you in a professional manner, I can assure you – never!”

A decade later, when Picquart has put both his career and his life on the line for the sake of exonerating Dreyfus, and the two men again, Picquart feels little more sympathy for him or for Jews. Near the book’s end, he and the “Dreyfusards” – the small band of family and public figures, including people like Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau, who have campaigned for years for the prisoner’s freedom – disagree over whether Dreyfus, having been appallingly convicted in a second court martial, should accept the offer of a judicial pardon.

Picquart, who has always acted alone, feels that to accept a pardon will constitute an admission of guilt, and refuses to give his blessing to the move. A Dreyfus ally attacks him in the press, calling him “energetically anti-Semitic,” leading Picquart to write to a friend: “I knew that one day I would be attacked by the Jews …”

“In a Hollywood movie, you’d have a moment when the character would arrive at understanding,” says Harris about his hero. Picquart would presumably unburden himself of his negative feelings about Jews, and maybe he and Dreyfus would even become drinking buddies. “That never happened with Picquart,” Harris continues. “He wasn’t changed by the experience.”

Picquart acted out of duty, not out of any special sympathy for Dreyfus. This complexity and ambivalence make him an inherently fascinating character. Harris is convinced that, “overall, what Picquart felt was loyalty to the law, to rationality, and duty, and above all, justice.” In the final analysis, he concludes, “I don’t think he could have lived with himself if he didn’t do something.”

‘Watergate-style cover-up’

Of Harris’ eight earlier published novels, four have been brought to the screen, to greater and lesser effect. Most recently, he wrote a first draft of the screenplay for a film version of his 2011 high-tech thriller “The Fear Index,” only to be informed, after submitting it, that “my services would no longer be required,” as he told The Telegraph last September, adding, “I will never put myself in that position again.”

Elaborating on that theme in his conversation with Haaretz, Harris said that “my entire life has been designed to be able to do what I want to do. I don’t want to take orders. I want to do my creative work. I’ve learned that in the last three or four years.”

Why, then, is he now shuttling between England, Paris and Switzerland, to finish work with Roman Polanski on a script version of “An Officer and a Spy”?

“Working with Roman is not like the normal process,” he explains. “You bat it back and forth. That’s different from working with faceless executives and being given notes on your work. That I will certainly never do again.”

The Dreyfus Affair is remarkable in the way it both obsessed and divided French society over a period of years, and for remaining so compelling more than a century after its namesake was released from Devil’s Island, cleared of all charges and returned to service in the French army (he died in 1935). I ask Harris if he has a theory regarding the ongoing fascination exercised by the story worldwide.

For one, says Harris, the episode is important for the way “it prefigures Germany in the 20th century. With France, they have this shocking defeat at Sedan [in the Franco-Prussian War]. And then there’s the search for scapegoats. They asked: What has gone wrong with our national character and our French manhood? We’re moving away from the land. And all this of this introspection focuses on the enemy within. The stab in the back.”

He finds it chilling that in France at the time, “they were burning Zola’s books, and smashing storefronts that had names [of proprietors] like Dreyfus and Levi written above the door … You feel the ugliness of the 20th century being born there. It’s very haunting.”

Beyond that, however, Harris sees the Dreyfus Affair as presaging an age when nothing can be kept secret forever, not even when it is the government that is trying to maintain the secret: “This affair speaks to us because it’s about a government cover-up in the dawn of the age of mass media.... And that the government is telling lies. There’s no such thing as a secret anymore. That’s why it’s the first great Watergate-style cover-up, in which, in the end, everyone is lying – the chief of the general staff, the defense minister, the intelligence head.”

Harris is convinced that “the moment Emile Zola dragged it into a court, [the conspiracy] began to collapse.” Zola wrote his expose “J’Accuse” for Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Aurore, in 1898. The government sued him for libel, and he mounted a vigorous self-defense in court, which included even the testimony of Picquart. Zola was convicted and Picquart drummed out of the army, but the truth began to out.

“At that moment,” suggests Harris, “I have no doubt that Piquart was certain he would be vindicated. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. The moment you have justice not being seen by everybody as being served, it ceases to be justice. The moment a government says this evidence can’t be shown publicly – invariably the evidence ends up not being what it purports to be. It’s a fundamental denial of justice.

“If there’s a lesson from the Dreyfus case, it is that any organization – an army, or the church or the government – that investigates itself will have a tendency to lie, and they will justify it by saying they’re doing it on behalf of national security. We have to have scrutiny. Democracy can be irritating and slow and unwieldy, but it’s the only way to avoid such situations.”

Cover illustration of Le Petit Journal depicting the December 1894 court martial.
Robert Harris.

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