Friday, 25 July 2014

An officer and a spy, Robert Harris

Unfortunately it is not uncommon for mistakes to be made in the cause of justice. People are convicted for crimes they did not commit. When they are lucky, they will get a new trial and be declared innocent. But often this is not so easy, as the well known Dreyfus-case shows us.

In 1870 the Germans invaded France. This war became a nightmare and a humiliation for France and the French army. The Germans did not only annex Alsace-Lorraine, but also crowned their emperor in Versailles, what used to be the heart of the French power.
In the following years this war was an open wound. The occupation of Alsace-Lorraine and the fear Germany would invade France again monopolized French politics and the army.

In 1895 a French officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of being a spy for the Germans, he was supposed to have given them crucial military information. Dreyfus became the most hated man in France and his punishment reflected that.
In a public ceremony, watched by thousands of angry people, Dreyfus was stripped of his military rank and his sable was broken. After that he was taken away to spend the rest of his life on a little island for the coast of French Guyana, in solitary confinement and under terrible circumstances.

Alfred Dreyfus

There was however a problem with the Dreyfus sentencing; the evidence was made up from circumstantial evidence and even forgeries. Because the trial was held behind closed doors and most of his file was not given to his defense lawyers, this was not known.
Dreyfus was a good candidate to be accused of spying, because he was Jewish. Anti-Semitism was not an exception in 19th century Europe and there were a lot of people who thought Jews capable of everything (in a negative way). After all, because they had no country of their own they did not know what loyalty was and betrayal was in their blood. That Dreyfus came from Alsace-Lorraine and spoke German also did not help his case.

Georges Picquart knew Dreyfus from the academy, where Picquart was a teacher when Dreyfus was a cadet. Picquart was also involved in Dreyfus’ arrest, although in a very minor role. He was promoted to be head of the intelligence department and was asked to conduct an investigation into the motives of Dreyfus, because that was the only thing that was unclear.

During his investigation Picquart found out the evidence against Dreyfus was based on nothing and even worse, somebody was still leaking information to the Germans. In other words: there was a real spy and Dreyfus was innocent. The army refused to acknowledge this and was prepared to let a real spy go, so they did not have to admit they made a mistake with Dreyfus.
Picquart’s superiors were not happy with these findings and made life more and more difficult for Picquart, they even demoted him and eventually imprisoned him. By then Picquart was not alone and other prominent people in France demanded a new trial for Alfred Dreyfus.
Georges Picquart

An officer and a spy by Robert Harris tells the story from the viewpoint of Georges Picquart, an ambitious officer, married to the army who did not like to become head of the intelligence department because he thought real soldiers should not work in such an underhand manner. He knew Dreyfus and did not really like him, but his sense of honour prevented him from turning a blind eye.

I have read some books set in ancient Rome by Robert Harris before, and I really liked them. They are thrilling and well written with an excellent historical background.
An officer and a spy is on an even higher level and that makes it impossible to put this book down. It is a combination of a good plot and excellent knowledge about the case and the historical period.
An officer and a spy is an amazing book about a case that puts everybody to shame about a case where political and military interests were more important than the innocence of one Jewish man.

Published in 2013

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