Infamous affair

“An Officer and a Spy” by Robert Harris. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. $27.95

In 1894, France’s military authorities accused Capt. Alfred Dreyfus of treason, used irregular means to convict him by court-martial and sentenced him to imprisonment for life on Devil’s Island, a barren rock off the penal colony of French Guiana — all at least partially because he was a Jew. There he was supposed to die.

But Dreyfus refused to die because he knew that he was innocent. His family, especially brother Mathieu, worked tirelessly to clear his name.

Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, the new head of French counterintelligence, discovered evidence proving that another officer, Maj. Ferdinand Esterhazy, was the real traitor.

A small band of “Dreyfusards” took up the cause. Against them, a cabal of army leaders and their political allies refused to admit that a terrible mistake had been made and whipped up virulent anti-Semitism as a smoke screen.

In the end, justice prevailed, though the process took more than a decade and involved many reverses. Dreyfus won complete exoneration, and the army purged its reactionaries.

The Dreyfus Affair is the greatest story imaginable of espionage, political intrigue, prejudice, crime, infamy and moral courage. Books recounting it are often bestsellers, like the most recent, in 2010, by Oxford University historian Ruth Harris, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century.”

Almost three decades ago in1986, about 100,000 people crowded an exhibition of the ephemera from the Dreyfus Affair during the four months it was open at the Jewish Museum in New York. Millions of viewers have seen The History Channel’s documentary, which premiered in 1998 and has been rebroadcast many times since.

Inevitably, fictionalized versions of the Dreyfus Affair have also appeared, and the latest is by British writer Robert Harris, who is well-known for his historical fiction, especially “Fatherland” (1992), which imagines that Germany has won World War II. His “An Officer and a Spy” is written from the perspective of Col. Picquart and is meant to tell the story of the Dreyfus Affair from the inside. he result is unsatisfying. Harris dwells on minor issues while completely omitting some major ones. His Picquart is far more brooding than the historical record depicts. The invented dialogue and thoughts seem more “English” than “French.” The president of the Republic was Ferdinand Faure, not Ferdinand Fauré.

Most of all, Harris fails to capture the singular contradiction of Picquart, who was himself an anti-Semite and cared little for Dreyfus the man or the cause of “justice” but much for his own standards of “truth” and “duty.” So many better options are available than this novelized history.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the price professor of history at LSU. He was a scholar-consultant to the exhibition “The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth & Justice” and to the documentary “The Infamous Dreyfus Affair.” His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want” (2013).