An Officer and a Spy
Date Published26 September 2013
Price£ 18.99

An Officer and a Spy

by Robert Harris

Following the conviction of Alfred Dreyfus for treason, Major Georges Picquart, who had witnessed the trial, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had identified Dreyfus as a spy. Events begin to occur which make him question the outcome of the trial.


Towards the end of the 19th century there occurred in France what has come to be known as ‘The Dreyfus Affair.’ Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was put on trial for treason, more specifically for passing military secrets to Germany, which was still regarded in France as the enemy, following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. No daily reports of the trial (by military court martial) appeared in newspapers, the army maintaining that it would not be in the national interest to allow intelligence matters to be discussed openly. However, not only was the trial secret, it was also at best perfunctory and, in the eyes of some, deeply anti-Semitic. It came as no surprise when Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to solitary confinement for life on Devil’s Island.

Those familiar with the story may be reluctant to consider reading this book, on the grounds that nothing new can possibly be said on the subject. In a sense, of course, that is correct, but this is no mere collection of facts. It is a highly imaginative account of what happened and what caused it to happen, told by Major Georges Picquart – one of the major participants.

For those unfamiliar with the Dreyfus Affair there is a treat in store. An Officer and a Spy manages to give a balanced account of what occurred and at the same time to organise the details in such a way as to bring out their importance and to make them more coherent. It is shown how those items which figure prominently in the story - the borderau, the petit bleu and the various forgeries, all of which can be confusing – are indispensable to an understanding of the events following the trial.

As details emerge of what is clearly a grave injustice, the reader finds himself longing for the officer, Picquart, to do all in his power to assist Dreyfus, the spy. The author never for one moment forgets that he is writing a historical novel, not a history, and the excitement mounts – slowly at first, but faster and faster as we move into the second part of the book.

Picquart himself only gradually begins to understand that it had always been the intention of the French military establishment to make an example of Dreyfus. Whilst this was part of an anti-Semitism widespread in France at the time it was not merely that. The impression is given that Dreyfus's main crime was not simply being a Jew, but being a Jew and an officer in the French army at the same time. The army aristocracy could not begin to see how the two could be compatible.

Picquart himself is part of that aristocracy and is just as concerned with the ‘honour’ of the profession as any of his fellow officers. It is not easy to convince himself that, important though that honour may be, there comes a point at which morality is infinitely more important. He wants justice for a man who he comes to believe is innocent but doesn’t want to bring the army into disrepute at the same time. It is only gradually that he begins to realise that he has to make a choice and it is to his eternal credit that he chooses to help an innocent man, even though the consequences for him are severe.

Great care is taken in making the characters come to life. Major Henry in particular is portrayed in detail, but even the most minor characters are brought to life, enabling us to understand the complexity of the problem facing France as the tragedy is played out. Above all, however, it is the narrator, Colonel Picquart himself, who holds our attention. He is a man, himself not without flaws, trying to do what is right in a society obsessed with appearances. We do not know, right until the very end of the book, what the future holds for him, but we hope for the best.

Reviewed 08 March 2014 by Arnold Taylor