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.”

The character making this observation is Dreyfus’s former teacher, Picquart, a brilliant linguist who whiled away his time on military maneuvers reading Tolstoy in Russian. Though repelled by the rants of popular anti-Semitic writers like Édouard Drumont, author of the best-selling “La France Juive,” Picquart nevertheless shared what Ruth Harris calls the “reflexive anti-Semitism” of his social milieu.

How, then, do these writers explain the crucial role played by Picquart in the Affair? Both recall that he had climbed the military echelons not just through his undisputed courage and competence, but also through his diplomacy and demeanor. These traits inspired confidence on the part of his superiors, which led them to replace Colonel Jean Sandherr with Picquart as head of the Statistical Section in 1895. This innocuously named bureau housed the rum crew that staffed the army’s intelligence office. Scarcely a year earlier, under Sandherr, who was in the terminal phase of syphilitic paralysis, had discovered that French military secrets were being sold to the Germans. Suspicion fell almost immediately on Dreyfus, the only Jew on the general staff, and the rest is history.

But the history rests with us largely because an officer imbued with streak of anti-Semitism as sharp as his careerism became Dreyfus’s savior. Ruth Harris concludes that it was, in large measure, Picquart’s commitment to reason, as well as the Republican ideal of justice, which led him to overcome both his anti-Semitism and careerism.

When he discovered that Germans continued to be fed French military secrets, and that the handwriting on the document leading to Dreyfus’s conviction instead matched that of a louche officer named Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy, Picquart could only conclude the obvious: Dreyfus was innocent.

Logic is one thing, however, while the will to insist upon it at great personal risk is quite another thing. Ruth Harris points to Picquart’s “singularity of character,” but this begs the question of how and why he had this character. Clearly, Picquart’s status as an outlier, someone who was in the army but not of it, encouraged him to do what many others would not or could not do.

Moreover, we should take the full measure of the late 19th century phrase “cult of reason.” In his unfinished early novel “Jean Santeuil,” Marcel Proust describes the nearly erotic effect of reason on the Dreyfusards, as does Roger Martin du Gard in his novel about the Affair, “Jean Barois.” Picquart perhaps loved reason as much as he loved justice; for Dreyfusards, the two concepts were inextricably linked

Ruth Harris does, however, note in passing that Picquart’s cerebral character, not to mention his status as a bachelor, led many on the right to believe he was a homosexual. Robert Harris ignores this possibility. His Picquart, who is the novel’s narrator, is instead a dapper and dashing officer who has been carrying out a 25-year affair with the wife of a French civil servant. Harris makes the love affair — which, as far as I can tell, is entirely invented — touchingly believable. Moreover, his recreation of the era is meticulous and his narrative is taut. The astonishing thing is that Harris keeps us breathless and wondering, even though we know how the story ends.

Yet, by the end of the novel, Picquart still eludes us. Robert Harris’s portrait of his hero is sharply etched, but perhaps too much so, leaving unplumbed the depths of his character. One of the most remarkable Dreyfusards, the Catholic thinker Charles Péguy, famously remarked about the Affair: “Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique (Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics).” And yet both of these books suggest that the Affair instead began in politics and ended, if not in mysticism, certainly in mystery.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press, 2013).


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