The reader of this audiobook is exceptional, capturing the tone and flavor of each character, such that when the character laughs or harrumphs or sighs, you can truly hear it; you are a witness to the tragedy and the triumph of this story of injustice. In addition, the author has made the storyline incredibly exciting. It has none of the dryness one might expect with the telling of a historic event, even when fictionalized. Harris made the account of the Dreyfus Affair come alive on the page and made the reader a witness to the events, as if there, along with all of the spectators. The extraordinary details and research that went into the writing of this book is commendable. The narrative flows so smoothly, the characters literally erupt realistically from the pages. The tension and intrigue is palpable, the conspiracy and cover-up is monumental and overtly anti-Semitic. They had neither shame nor guilt, no compunction about framing an innocent man in their drive to further their own careers and protect the army.
The famous, or rather infamous trial of Alfred Dreyfus, will live on in history as a travesty of justice, as an example of man’s inhumanity to man. The French gendarmes and spymasters wanted a sacrificial lamb and who better to blame than a Jew. Dreyfus, was condemned, convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island in the hope that he would die there, eliminating the problem of his innocence. A model soldier, he was devoted to the cause of the French, even though his heritage was German, but that indeed, is what eventually made him the perfect foil. The French were demoralized by their loss in the war with Germany in 1870. To rise again, they needed a scapegoat. Did they sacrifice a man simply to embarrass Germany by pretending that because Dreyfus was German, he was the most likely suspect to pass along secrets to them? Would they then let the guilty man walk free? Their dishonorable behavior will not be forgotten.
Colonel Georges Picquart is the star of this “performance”, for indeed, the author and the reader made it seem like he was on stage, allowing the reader to watch and witness every nook and cranny of his investigation, complete with false accusations, forgeries, false imprisonments, kangaroo courts, prejudged trials, fraud, falsification of the facts, refusal to face the errors in the court case and correct them, anti-Semitism, French nationalism, possibly even murder to protect the cover-up, and a complete lack of ethics and morality.
In 1895, Georges Picquart was designated as the new head of the Statistical Section in the French Army’s intelligence division. He had been a “good boy”, a bit unwittingly, during the mockery of the secret trial of Alfred Dreyfus, actually leading him to the slaughter, and was subsequently rewarded with this position, the reason for which others were awaref, but he was not. When he discovered he had probably been used, he became suspicious of certain details of the arrest and trial, and he began to rethink the events that led to the arrest. When he discovered the possibility of another spy, he attempted to re-investigate the case. When he then discovered the fraudulent events and tactics leading up to the arrest of Dreyfus, he was appalled and tried to alert his superiors. Although he was not a lover of Jews, he was ashamed of the part he has played in this sham of a trial. They knew the evidence was false, tampered with and fabricated, yet they proceeded to cover their tracks and make a Jew the convenient victim, a victim that the masses loved to hate.
As Picquart attempts to inform his superiors, he is thwarted at every turn and eventually sent to far away places, losing his position and esteem, as they try to cover up their part in this miscarriage of justice. They are not interested in bringing the guilty man to bear, they only want to keep the innocent man imprisoned so they can continue their political and military rise. Dreyfus was indeed framed; Picquart knew he was innocent. He was tormented by the need to do something to correct the wrong that was done. As the conspiracy widened, he became more certain that he had to stop them. As Henri, who worked for Picquart had indicated, he, Henri, was the consummate soldier and would obey orders, regardless of what they were, in order to preserve and protect the army, and, of course, his own career. He, among others, told Picquart, many times, to stop his investigation and let the matter rest.
Picquart, merely wanted to do the right thing before the whole thing exploded and came down upon the head of the military, but he, too, was eventually arrested, framed by those who wished to hide their sins from the public eye. From the top down, they were complicit; the Minister of War, The Chief of Staff, and other important figures all played a role in this sham. The innocent were punished while the guilty man roamed free. The minor players, who could offer evidence, suddenly died. Were they murdered? Did they commit suicide?
The story details the effort to free Dreyfus and restore his honor. It highlights the tenderness he felt for his family, the devotion of his family and the entire Jewish community to his cause, and the horrific punishment he was subject to by the penal system that believed he was guilty. He was shackled, without any creature comforts and even forbidden his mail; he was isolated completely. The public believed he had committed treason, and the French couldn’t care less about him. To them he was a convenient traitor. His religion, as well as his crime, made him a pariah for the citizens of France, but a cause célèbre for his family, friends and fellow Jews.
In the end, Picquart may have shown his true colors. He wanted to do what was honorable but he did not care much for Jews. Although he had been restored to his rightful rank and was made the Minister of War in 1906, he refused to do the same for Dreyfus when he came to him requesting the same, to be made Brigadier General, the rank he would have held had he not spent years in prison. I wondered if that scene was put in the book to show the consistency, the prevalence of French anti-Semitism and/or the prevailing stereotype of the greedy Jew. What Picquart did was commendable, but he didn’t risk his life and career to save a Jew, though that was the outcome; he didn’t align themselves with their cause because a Jew was unjustly accused and imprisoned, he did it for the principle, he did it to do the right thing. I got the feeling, sadly, that he still did not like Jews!