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13 January 2014

Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy

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True life almost unbelievable espionage saga
I had read somewhere about the Dreyfus affair but never knew what really happened. In "An Officer and a Spy" Robert Harris brings the real history of the affair to life and examines the motives and reasons for the worst debacle in French military history and one of the most striking examples of a complex miscarriage of justice in a democratic country.

The truth is much stranger than fiction and Harris transports you back to what really happened. The characters are real and the environment carefully reconstructed.

This is a complex espionage novel set at the turn of the 20th Century. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French artillery officer of Alsatian Jewish descent was convicted of treason for allegedly having passed French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. His sentence is severe with a public humiliation in front of a huge crowd where his rank is stripped and his sword broken, followed by incarceration on the notorious Devil's Island in Caribbean which was re-opened especially for a single prisoner.

The background to the intense feeling about the offence was the 1870 French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war that seceded Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. Tensions are still high between the two countries with Prussia outspending the French on military preparations. Antisemitism is rife in the French military.

Harris tells the story through the eyes of  Georges Picquart who was involved in the preparation of evidence for the Dreyfus trial and then promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the "Statistical Division" responsible for military intelligence. He paints a vivid picture of espionage of the day with domestic staff selling closely torn waste paper from the German Embassy and Piquart's staff painstakingly reconstructing the original documents. This leads to the identification of a French Officer who is selling military information to the Germans to pay off his gambling debts. Picquart eventually concludes that this proves that Dreyfus was innocent and the wrong person was convicted.

This is not really a spoiler because anyone can check out the history of the Dreyfus affair by reading a most comprehensive and complex Wiki history. Harris unfolds an unbelievable chapter of events with the military defending its decisions under "the authority of the principle of already judged". Emile Zola and the family of Dreyfus bring the matter into the public arena and the popular Dreyfusard movement is formed. False statements are made; a key player commits suicide; Picquard and Zola are arrested and stand trial, Dreyfus is brought back from incarceration to face trial again. Retributions and restorations abound.

This is a well researched, action-packed and well written "factual" reconstruction of an amazing affair in history and is highly recommended.

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