Dreyfus Affair Continues To Intrigue and Confound After a Century

Robert Harris Offers Tale of an 'Officer and a Spy'

Je Défende: Captain Alfred Dreyfus was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer
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Je Défende: Captain Alfred Dreyfus was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer

By Robert Zaretsky

Published January 15, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
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● An Officer and a Spy
By Robert Harris
Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95

● Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century
By Ruth Harris
Picador, 572 pages, $28

Why is it that people named Harris tend to have affairs with the Dreyfus Affair? Just three years ago, the British historian Ruth Harris published “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century,” her remarkable account of this chapter in French history. And now, Robert Harris — the same fellow who wrote the stunning counterfactual history “Fatherland” — has just published a thoroughly factual fictionalization of the Affair, “An Officer and a Spy.”

No doubt some of the unhinged actors from the Affair would have seen a dark conspiracy at work. Indeed, Robert Harris confesses that Ruth Harris provided advice for his book! But the truth is drearier: The only conspiracy afoot is that of two writers whose gifts for taut narrative, telling detail and tempered empathy force us to wonder if the lines we draw between fiction and history are, well, fictitious.

The story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whose arrest, conviction and lifetime sentence on the charge of treason thrust not just him, but also an entire nation onto the world stage, is too well known to retell here. Or is it? Both Ruth and Robert Harris, in their respective accounts, make us reconsider the traditional accounts of the Affair, one worthy of Hollywood, where the forces of good and light confront those of evil and darkness.

Yet, as both writers reveal, the reality was, as it always is, far messier. To be sure, heroes there were, but they were all too human. Dreyfus’s lawyers, Fernand Labori and Edgar Demange, wrestled one another for the limelight; Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, the senator who challenged the army’s case, warned against “jewifying” the cause; the novelist Émile Zola at times seemed more engaged by the dramatic possibilities of the Affair than the human cost to Dreyfus; Georges Clémenceau, whose newspaper published Zola’s celebrated letter “J’Accuse,” dismissed Eastern European Jews as “sordid creatures.” And many French Jews felt the same repulsion for their exotic brethren.

The most paradoxical and complex heroes, however, were undoubtedly Colonel Georges Picquart and Captain Dreyfus himself. Both men were Alsatian and dedicated to winning their “lost province” back from Germany; both were brilliant products of the prestigious École de guerre (in fact, Picquart was one of Dreyfus’s instructors); and both were ardent patriots and Republicans.

But this is where the similarities end. The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, Dreyfus did not depend on his officer’s pay to meet the rent. The rent, moreover, was hefty. Rather than staying in officers’ quarters, he lived with his wife Lucy and their two children in a grand apartment on the posh avenue du Trocadéro and kept his own private stable. Compounding the material and physical distance from his fellow officers was Dreyfus’s social awkwardness. Many of the participants in the Affair, Dreyfusards as well as anti-Dreyfusards, commented on his oddly detached and brusque manner. This trait is marvelously captured by Robert Harris, who has a character remark during Dreyfus’s public humiliation, broken of his rank at the École Militaire: “He stared ahead as he was tugged this way and that, submitting to these indignities as child might to having its clothes adjusted by an irritable adult.”


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