Sunday, 24 August 2014


Hutchinson, 2013, 483 pages, $19.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

What do you do when you are a national security official with access to secret intelligence and find that the shonky information and tenuous evidence in it has been corruptly used to convict an innocent man of treason?  Join in the suppression of the case?  Or expose the injustice?  Major Georges Picquart, commander of France’s secret police in 1895, faced exactly this dilemma in the Dreyfus Affair and, at great risk of his own victimisation, chose to expose the frame-up of the French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus.  Robert Harris’ historical novel dramatically reconstructs the transformation of Picquart from loyal military officer to crusading whistle-blower. 

After France’s colossal defeat by Germany in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, a scapegoat-hungry French military and political elite found, amongst France’s vilified ‘Jews and Traitors’, a convenient fall-guy in Dreyfus, a military officer and a Jew with German cultural roots in the German-occupied French territories of Alsace-Lorraine.

Picquart had many misgivings about Dreyfus’ conviction for espionage which resulted in his exile to France’s isolated Devil’s Island hell-hole.  Dreyfus, thought Picquart, had no apparent motive.  The prosecution illegally (via Picquart) provided to the court-martial judges a secret file which “wouldn’t withstand ten minutes’ cross examination by a halfway decent attorney”, says a repentant Picquart once he sights the material in his newly-promoted capacity as secret police chief.  The spy was identified solely by the letter ‘D’ (for ‘Dreyfus’, that’ll do, thought his framers) on the one incriminating sheet of paper allegedly in Dreyfus’ handwriting.

With resourcefulness, guile and irresistible obsession, Picquart dug into the case and discovered that the real agent was a French Army Major, Esterhazy, selling military secrets to pay off his gambling and mistress debts.  Making his superiors aware of the true situation, Picquart is ordered off his personal investigation to prevent the certain embarrassment and career ruin of Dreyfus’ judicial, military and political persecutors, including five of France’s most senior Army Generals.

When Picquart defies his bosses, a ‘desperate and vindictive army’ attempts to silence him.  He is spied on, interrogated, arrested, held in indefinite detention without trial, transferred to effective exile in France’s African colonies, then dismissed from the Army.  But Picquart is never put on trial.  The ‘founder of the school of Dreyfus studies: its leading scholar’ who knows ‘every letter and telegram, every personality, every forgery, every lie’ of the Dreyfus Affair would be too dangerous to its perpetrators and apologists if given a platform in court.

The limelight-shunning Picquart eventually finds his ‘solitary burden of secrecy’ lifted when he connects with the broad and vigorous mobilisation of social forces (led by intellectuals, left-wing politicians and socialists) that was the essential crux on which turned the eventual victory of the ‘Dreyfusards’ against France’s establishment conspirators, perjurers, forgers and anti-Semites.  Picquart and Dreyfus were both exonerated in 1906, after a decade of seemingly hopeless struggle. 

The relevance of this historic triumph, well-narrated by an industrious Harris despite some sluggish passages of weighty detail, has not dimmed – of never giving up the slog of campaigning against heavy institutional odds, and of the value of the system’s insiders who, with moral courage, forensic diligence and the dogged pursuit of getting the truth out, blow the whistle on the abuse of official power and secrecy.

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