As anti-Semitic sentiment ran high in 1894, the French military conducted one of the most egregious witch hunts in modern history. In the dramatized "An Officer and a Spy," Robert Harris (author of "Fatherland") plunges us into the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Suspecting a German spy in their ranks, the French Army convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus on secret evidence in a non-public military court martial. Although Dreyfus protested his innocence, the Jewish officer was imprisoned for years in barbaric conditions on Devil's Island (also featured in Papillon).
Yet counterintelligence chief Georges Picquart felt uneasy about the whole affair. The secrecy and procedural irregularities didn't sit well with him. He began to investigate and eventually uncovered clear evidence that Dreyfus had been framed and that the real spy was another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy. When he brought his findings to his superiors, he was rebuffed and Picquart began to develop a queasy sense that the French general staff was covering up their incorrect conviction of Dreyfus to avoid public embarrassment. After all, Dreyfus was "only a Jew." It wasn't worth making a fuss over. Picquart heroically disagreed and set off a chain of events that led to an acrimonious national scandal, several assassinations, and the absurd circumstance of the French Army protecting the real traitor Esterhazy in order to keep the innocent Dreyfus locked away.
Harris does a reasonable, although not inspired, dramatization of the Dreyfus Affair and provides enough flavor on each personality for us to keep the extensive cast of characters in our head. I particularly enjoyed some of the old-school espionage and counter-espionage tactics that Harris includes as Picquart attempts to escape his pursuers. I'm looking forward to watching the Polanksi film adaptation in 2019.
Reading this book hot on the heels of Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side," I realized that perhaps we're not too far from our own Dreyfus Affair. The targeting of religious minorities, indefinite detention on tropical islands, and secret trials in the name of "national security"... if it's not an exact copy, it certainly rhymes.