‘Major Dreyfus to see the Minister of War…’
I hear him announce himself to my orderly at the foot of the marble staircase in that familiar voice with its trace of German. I listen to the click of his boots as he mounts the steps, and then slowly he emerges into view – the cap, the epaulettes, the gold buttons, the braid, the sword, the stripe on his trousers: all exactly as it was before the degradation, but with the addition of the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour on his artilleryman’s black tunic.
He comes to a halt on the landing and salutes. ‘General Picquart.’
‘Major Dreyfus.’ I smile and extend my hand. ‘I have been waiting for you. Please come through.’
Robert Harris takes the story and does his trademark excellent job on it: easy to read, wholly convincing, and hard to put down. Even when you know how his stories end, he can fill them with tension. He uses a first person narration by one of the key players, Colonel Georges Picquart, who put his own career on the line for Dreyfus:
-- and Harris says that although he has tidied the story up for fictional purposes, just about all the people and incidents in the book are real.
There are historians who think that the ramifications of the Dreyfus Affair affected the French Army right through until the 1940s, involving weaknesses that contributed to the defeat by the Germans. Army cultures are always difficult for outsiders to understand, and Harris makes this clear, showing that senior men believed that armies depend totally on discipline and obedience, and that that can take precedence over justice and right. The Duke of Wellington, England’s most revered soldier, held this view too, and took a very hard line over any hint of mutiny - it seems likely he would have sacrificed what we now think of as basic human rights to what he saw as the greater good.
In the couldn’t-be-more-different-but-somehow-the-same department, Terry Pratchett takes an illuminating look at armies in Monstrous Regiment.
The picture of Colonel Picquart is from the Library of Congress, the picture of Dreyfus, top, is from George Eastman House.