An Officer and a Spy
A few weeks ago I finished reading Robert Harris’s ‘An Officer and A Spy.’ Rich in period details, evocative of France in the 1880’s – you can almost smell the sewers in the Parisian heat – the story is based on real life events: the Dreyfus case.
Alfred Dreyfus was an officer wrongly convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island. Those, and there were many, who brought him to trial made the evidence fit the crime largely because Dreyfus was a Jew and anti-Semitic feelings at the time ran high. A family man, Dreyfus was not the easiest individual to like. He had a pedantic attitude to work and prized diligence to detail. He was, in essence, a bit of a prig, but he was an innocent prig. What makes the case so interesting and appalling is that even when it was discovered that Dreyfus could not possibly have committed an act of treason and that all the evidence pointed strongly to another, elements in the army insisted that the innocent Dreyfus serve out his life sentence in truly grim circumstances. The reason for this: it would be too embarrassing to admit a mistake had been made. In summary, the Dreyfus case bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy. Had it not been for a few brave souls committed to saving Dreyfus, he would have died in captivity.
As depressing as it is when individuals pervert the truth, condemning others to save face, it’s also uplifting to witness those few prepared to stand up and risk all for the sake of justice. Colonel Georges Picquart, Chief of the Statistical Section was instrumental in saving Dreyfus, as was the writer, Emile Zola. Both men risked lives, freedom, relationships and livelihoods. Given those circumstances, it’s tempting to wonder what sort of people we would be. As every writer knows, it’s only under pressure true character is revealed. Those who throw caution aside in the pursuit of justice are very special indeed. They are the stuff of main protagonists, but in the Dreyfus case, truth really is stranger than fiction.