J’accuse

officer and spyReview of the historical novel An Officer and a Spy by Richard Harris.

There are many examples of group think and injustice in the history books. Few are quite as dramatic as the Dreyfuss Affair that gripped France in the late 19th/ early 20th century. The story is told as a historical novel in Richard Harris’s book, from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, a key central character in the story of uncovering the antisemitic conspiracy and subsequent cover-up.

Alfred Dreyfuss was a captain in the French army who happened to be Jewish. At that time anti-Jewish sentiments were rife in French society and the army. Captain Dreyfuss was convicted of spying on behalf of the Germans, based on insubstantial and trumped up evidence. He was sent into solitary confinement on a remote island off South America, guarded night and day.

Picquart was at that time a rising star of the French army, it’s youngest colonel. He was given the job of French spymaster. Initially convinced of Dreyfuss’ guilt, Picquart gradually unearthed evidence of who the real spy was, army Major Esterhazy, and hence of Dreyfuss’ innocence.  The story tracks the efforts of senior army officers  and politicians to suppress the truth and keep Dreyfuss incarcerated on that remote island.

This is the story of all the institutional cover ups we see from time to time, the closing of ranks,  the manipulation or loss of evidence, the refusal to face the truth or allow it to come to light, to protect the organisation and the guilty. It is also the story of the heroic journalist and others who courageously brings the truth to light – notably Emile Zola with his famous open letter to the president of the Republic “J’accuse…”

And eventually this is the story of how Dreyfuss is subsequently found innocent and released, and Picquart becomes a Minister of state.

Harris tells a good story, and I was gripped to the end.

Good fodder to keep in mind when similar events occur in contemporary states and organisations. The capability of organisational leaders to stop the truth coming out can never be underestimated.

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