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English Methodist Newspapers Reporting on the Dreyfus Affair (1899)

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In 1898, the main English Methodist newspapers and magazines (the Bible Christian Magazine, the Free Methodist, the Methodist Recorder, and the Methodist Times) largely ignored the Dreyfus Affair , but by July 1899, they were all publicly defending and sympathising with Captain Dreyfus. In July 1899, the Bible Christian Magazine applauded the French Judges who quashed the original “conviction of Dreyfus,” which, the magazine concluded, had been shown to be “obtained by wholesale perjury and forgery.” The magazine depicted Dreyfus as the victim of a sinister plot. In September, the magazine contended that not just Dreyfus, but the French nation was on trial at Rennes. The magazine suggested that the nation’s statesman, administrators and army stood before the eyes of the world, “a discredited product of the age.” In October, the magazine observed that it was not concerned with Dreyfus as an individual per se, but rather with the French people, who were close neighbours, with a history closely interwoven with that of the English. The Bible Christian Magazine claimed that it desired to avoid anti-French sectarianism, noting that “their downfall cannot profit us; their shame is a menace to us, for as they sink they tend to drag us with them.” The magazine thus wished to avoid condemning France to oblivion, desiring instead to restore “a sane France, a justice-loving France, a pure France.” The paper expressed its hope that France would consider the judgement that has been passed upon her by popular opinion across Europe, overcome the “flood of corruption and perjury,” and free herself from “Jesuitism.” See “Dreyfus,” Bible Christian Magazine, July 1899, 471-472; “Distraught France,” Bible Christian Magazine, September 1899, 609; “Our Next Door Neighbour,” Bible Christian Magazine, October 1899, 676-677.

The Free Methodist only contained a few very short reports on the Dreyfus Affair. In September 1899, the paper stated that the verdict at the retrial of Dreyfus excites “mingled feelings of compassion and indignation. Deep sympathy is felt for Captain Dreyfus and his noble wife. To be condemned again after suffering five years’ torture on Devil’s Isle … is very hard indeed.” The paper attributed the verdict of the judges in favour of the army rather than Dreyfus to “stupidity,” “prejudice,” and “moral cowardice.” The Free Methodist linked the Dreyfus Affair to Catholicism and the Pope, arguing that: “the Dreyfus case makes a startling revelation of the corrupt condition of the Church of Rome. The clerical papers of France, and notably those conducted and influenced by priests, have clamoured for this cruel and unjust verdict. The Pope and the bishops have maintained a criminal silence, and the Church which claims to be the true body of Christ has never one word in favour of mercy towards a man who, like his Divine Lord, is a persecuted Jew”. The Free Methodist attributed the “corruption of France and the unjust condemnation of Dreyfus” to “the clerical education system … and the hypocrisy of French priests.” The paper approved when the French Government pardoned and released Captain Dreyfus, and wished him a quick recovery. The paper noted that Dreyfus and his friends should not content themselves with a mere release, as his good name needs to be restored. The paper stated that it is doubtful however that the reputation of “the Church of Rome” can be restored after its “cruel persecution of Dreyfus.” “The Catholics who rejoiced and praised God for the outrageous judgement of Rennes have dealt their Church an irreparable blow,” the paper concluded. See “Notes and Comments,” Free Methodist:  14 September 1899, 625-626, and 28 September 1899, 657.

The Methodist Recorder similarly defended Dreyfus, and attributed the injustice to so-called “Jesuitry”. On 14 September 1899, the paper reported that “it is no exaggeration to say that the act of the Court Martial at Rennes, or rather the act of the five military Judges who re-condemned Captain Dreyfus, has filled the whole world with horror and amazement.” Only the “Anti-Semites and the Jesuits,” the paper suggested, were likely to be pleased with the result. The paper observed that France as a whole should not be condemned, as a large number of people in France believe in the innocence of Captain Dreyfus, and sympathise with the indignation felt by other nations regarding the verdict. “France is not wholly given over to fanatical Jew-baiters, idolaters of the Army, and Jesuitry,” the paper reported. The Methodist Recorder defended English Catholics and Cardinal Herbert Vaughan (the Archbishop of Westminster), noting that “the English Roman Catholics largely share the indignation of their protestant neighbours,” and that “even Cardinal Vaughan himself is on the same side.” The Methodist Recorder was probably swayed by the more positive articles in English Catholic newspapers (including the Tablet) defending Captain Dreyfus at the end of the affair (i.e. in late 1899). See “Editorial Notes,” Methodist Recorder, 14 September 1899.

Despite the comments in the Methodist Recorder defending Cardinal Vaughan, earlier articles in Cardinal Vaughan’s own newspaper, the Tablet, the semi-official newspaper of the English Catholic hierarchy, were bitterly hostile towards Captain Dreyfus, and portrayed his various defenders as part of an anti-Catholic Jewish-Masonic alliance. For example, when Captain Dreyfus was accused of treason at the end of 1894 and beginning of 1895, and sentenced to exile and imprisonment on Devil’s Island, the Tablet was very quick to believe the accusations. The episode according to the Tablet did not merely demonstrate the guilt of one man, but also revealed the so-called growing power of the Jews and Freemasons. In January 1895, the Tablet contained a report in its Paris news section, stating that “there can be little doubt that the trivial punishment inflicted on Captain Dreyfus for what, in a military country like France, is one of the most heinous of crimes, is owing to the fact that he is both a Freemason and a Jew.” According to the Tablet, “while in England the Jews are a harmless and inoffensive tribe, or at most work unaggressively, in France they are the declared and open enemies of the Christian religion; using their wealth and talents to obtain official positions, and the power with which these latter endow them to strike every blow that chance may afford at the Catholic faith; and they never miss a chance.” “The combination of Judaism with Freemasonry is irresistible,” the reported stated, and “it rules France with an iron-gloved hand, and there is no disguise of velvet-covering to soften the grip.” The report in the Tablet concluded that “had a Christian been found guilty of the treachery of Captain Dreyfus he would have been shot,” whereas he “escapes with a comfortable exile, accompanied by his wife and family, and freedom to live his own life subject to the very slightest supervision.” The Tablet continued to maintain this position in 1898. The Tablet reported that “the sudden clamour for the revision of the Dreyfus trial … is a subsidized movement, financed by the moneyed interest which has made the cause of the Jewish Captain its own.” According to the report, if Dreyfus had “belonged to any other race,” there would be no agitation on his behalf. “It looks,” the paper reported, “almost as if the intangibility of the Hebrew were to be elevated to the place of a new dogma of public right, as the final article of the Jacobin creed of the Revolution.” The paper argued that the Dreyfus case has become the battleground for two opposing factions. On the one side stands “the elements that represent and constitute French nationality – the old aristocracy, the army with its Catholic traditions, and the bulk of the Catholic population.” On the other side stands the “cosmopolitan forces of international journalism, Semitic finance, and infidel letters which seek to move the world by the leverage of two great powers, intellect and money.” The Tablet was again explicit in its declaration of an alliance between Jews and Freemasons, and as it had before, it suggested that in certain circumstances, antisemitism was acceptable if regrettable. It stated that: “We shall not, we trust, be accused of palliating or condoning the excesses of anti-Semitism, by pointing out that the Jews, in France, Italy, and Austria, the three principal Catholic nations of the continent, exercise a political influence entirely disproportioned to their numbers, and that this influence is always exercised against the religion of the country. In close alliance with the Freemasons, … they form the backbone of the party of aggressive liberalism, with war to the knife against the Church as the sum and aim of its policy.” See “Notes from Paris,” Tablet, 12 January 1895, 58; “Antisemitism in the Austrian Election,” Tablet, 27 March 1897, 481-482; “Captain Dreyfus and His Champions,” Tablet, 12 February 1898, 238.

Whilst the Methodist Recorder was relatively conciliatory towards Cardinal Archbishop Vaughan and English Catholics – though on 5 October it was critical about Vaughan’s decision to defend the Catholic newspapers’ handling of the Dreyfus Affair – it did report that “the authorities of the Church in Rome, if only because of their silence, cannot be held blameless in the matter. The Pope and his Cardinals may not have had it in their power to prevent the result, but they might, at least, with their great authority, have imposed silence upon those priests in France, who, though a fanatical Press, have inflamed the popular provincial mind.” It invoked Pilate and the image of the crucifixion as an analogy to condemn those who condemned Dreyfus. It stated that the Pope and his Cardinals have “elected to play the part of Pilate and Caiaphas in another tragedy. Knowing, as they must have done in their secret hearts, that an innocent man was being martyred, they were content to let events take their course.” On 21 September, the paper applauded the pardoning of Dreyfus, noting that “no French Government would dream of pardoning an officer of the General Staff twice condemned if there were even the shadow of a doubt as to his innocence.” It again condemned “the forgers and conspirators and liars” who “go scot free, except that they are execrated not only by the world outside France, but by the best and noblest of their own countrymen.” Significantly, the paper argued against an agitation for the boycotting of the Paris Exhibition that was planned for 1900, which it regarded as unfair and unwise, as “the rotten section of the French army is not France, nor is that blind and mad section of the Roman Catholic Church of France of which ‘La Croix’ is the organ, nor yet those dregs of the French Press which stand for all that is unjust and inhuman.” English people should not hate France in general the paper concluded, but rather “honour the noble minority – if minority it still is – that has pleaded for justice to the falsely-accused.” The paper did however “confess to an intense desire to see justice avenged on the real culprits in this great drama.” See “Editorial Notes,” Methodist Recorder: 14 September 1899, 3; 21 September 1899, 3; 5 October 1899, 3.

Of the Methodist newspapers and magazines in 1899, the Methodist Times contained the most prominent anti-Catholicism in its reporting of the Dreyfus Affair. The Methodist Times argued on 21 September 1899 that the Jesuits were to blame for the Dreyfus Affair. Furthermore, whereas the Methodist Recorder mostly defended or praised English Catholics and Cardinal Archbishop Herbert Vaughan, the Methodist Times excoriated Vaughan for his attempts to deflect just criticism, and, quote, “his silence and the silence of all the English Romanist Hierarchy, when every other Christian Church is protesting against the wicked verdict of Rennes.” According to the Methodist Times, Vaughan was the “docile pupil of the French Jesuit school” (in reality, there was no connection between Cardinal Vaughan and the French Jesuits – but his newspaper the Tablet had excoriated Jews and Captain Dreyfus prior to 1899). “The Dreyfus case and the rotten condition of the French Army,” the Methodist Times argued, was “the direct result of the momentous fact that the Jesuits now dominate the French Roman Catholic Church.” The Methodist Times argued that the “great political and ecclesiastical fact of our time is that the Jesuits, after centuries of strife, have at last captured the whole machinery of the Roman Catholic Church, and are gradually crushing out of that Church all those who do not accept their views and methods.” “The more Liberal and manly American Romanism lies prostrate in the dust under the foot of Spanish Romanism,” the paper concluded. Furthermore, the Methodist Times blamed the Jesuits for events throughout Europe: “the Jesuit organisation has brought France into her present position, keeps the unity of Italy in constant peril, threatens the German Empire, will certainly destroy the unity of Austria, and, mainly through Irish agency, is always secretly seeking to undermine the unity of the British Empire.” The same issue of the Methodist Times also contained a couple of reports of Methodists delivering lectures on the Dreyfus Affair and organising protests. One Methodist minister, the Rev. D. A. De Mouilpied, delivered a lecture on France and the “Dreyfus Tragedy” at a crowded chapel in York – according to the paper, 2000 congregants assembled to hear the lecture – and the Superintendent minister organised a letter to be sent from the large congregation to Madame Dreyfus to express “profound sympathy” and “confidence in Captain Dreyfus’s innocent.” The Rev. De Mouilpied then repeated his lecture at another crowded chapel in Sheffield. According to the Methodist Times, the minister declared that the retrial was not a “miscarriage of justice, for there had been no justice”; it had simply been a “cruel and infamous farce.” See “Americanism,” Methodist Times, 21 September 1899, 657; “York: The Dreyfus Tragedy,” Methodist Times, 21 September 1899, 662; “Sheffield: The Dreyfus Infamy,” Methodist Times, 21 September 1899, 662.

Unlike the Methodist Recorder, the Methodist Times called for a firm boycott of the French Exhibition, and argued that “the French people are responsible” for the Dreyfus Affair. “It is transparent nonsense,” the paper argued, “to say that we must not punish the whole nation for the sins of a handful of men, or even of the General Staff of the Army.” According to the paper, the “notorious fact” is that with the exception of a small minority, the whole nation “savagely endorses the abominable crime perpetrated by the court-martial at Rennes.” It was thus morally unacceptable, the paper argued, to go “laughing and smiling and dancing to the Exhibition,” as to do so would be to make oneself party to the “Dreyfus infamy.” Only if the French people – via their Government and Parliament – repent and repudiate the infamies committed in their name, would it be acceptable to attend the Exhibition, the paper contended. See “Notes of Current Events,” Methodist Times, 21 September 1899, 664.

The Methodist Times also contained other reports that were critical or hostile towards Catholicism in October and November 1899. On 26 October, the paper reported and approved a letter sent by George Mivart to The Times newspaper on 17 October, which accused the Church of silently tolerating French Catholic antisemitism during the Dreyfus Affair. In November 1899, the Methodist Times contained a number of reports that the Pope, the Jesuits, and the Catholic newspapers, hated England, and were gloating over calamities faced by the British Empire. According to the paper, “the Jesuits from their standpoint are logically justified in the hatred with which they regard us. Their sentiments are exemplified in the Dreyfus infamy. The British Empire stands for civil and religious freedom, the rights of conscience and the vindication of truth. … the official hierarchy of the Papacy is, and always has been, the deadliest enemy of human freedom and of the rights of man.” According to the paper, the Catholic Church, the Pope, and the Jesuits, are hoping for or planning the downfall of the British Empire. See “Mr. St. George Mivart and the Pope,” Methodist Times, 26 October 1899, 737; “The Pope and the Jesuits Rejoice,” Methodist Times, 2 November 1899, 760; “The Jesuits’ Position Logical,” Methodist Times, 2 November 1899, 760; “Roman Catholicism Losing Ground,” Methodist Times, 2 November 1899, 760; “The Papal Hatred of England,” Methodist Times, 16 November 1899, 796; “The Jesuit Invasion of England,” Methodist Times, 16 November 1899, 796.

Nineteenth-century English anti-Catholicism probably influenced the reporting in some of these Methodist newspapers as much as any sympathy for Jews and Captain Dreyfus. For those with an anti-Catholic axe to grind, such as the Methodist Times, the Dreyfus Affair was a gift, as many Catholic newspapers, especially the French Catholic newspaper La Croix and the Rome based Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica, but also the English Catholic Tablet, were acerbically anti-Jewish and anti-Masonic during (and before) the Diana Vaughan Hoax (1894-1897) and the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1899). Anti-Catholicism in various forms has been a prominent feature of post-reformation British culture and society. According to Bernard Glassman’s study of “protean prejudice,” during the eighteenth century, “Catholics were, by far, the most despised and feared minority group in England. … If, through the years, they had been guilty of portraying the Jew as the nefarious ‘other’ who proved the superiority of Christianity by his sinister behaviour, they, in turn, were viewed in the same way by the Protestant majority.” Though the early Methodists were sometimes “accused of being ‘Papists in disguise’ or ‘Popishly inclined’”, Methodist publications during the late-eighteenth century, and throughout much of the nineteenth century, were disseminators of anti-Catholic narratives. See Bernard Glassman, Protean Prejudice (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998), 35-36, 44.

An Odd Construction of G. K. Chesterton’s “Philosemitism”

In his book on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “holiness” (an edited collection of essays by various contributors), William Oddie argues that Chesterton was not only a saint but also a “philosemite.” Whilst I have looked at some of Oddie’s arguments elsewhere, I thought it would be a good idea to bring them together and examine them afresh.

One of William Oddie’s arguments is that Chesterton could not have been an antisemite because on a number of occasions he defended Jews from antisemitism. According to Oddie, Chesterton felt protective feelings for Jews from his childhood onwards. He presented a diary entry, dated 5 January 1891, which stated that Chesterton felt so strongly about some vicious acts of cruelty to a Jewish girl in Russia that he was inclined to “knock some-body down”. He also quotes from letters by Chesterton’s alter-ego, Guy Crawford (under which name Chesterton published a series of letters). These were printed in the Debater, the magazine of the “Junior Debating Club,” in 1892. In these letters, Crawford discusses his plans to go to Russia to help “the Hebrews” suffering in pogroms. As William Oddie observed, the series of letters ends with “Guy Crawford” siding with a revolutionary mob in St. Petersburg, and leaping to the defence of a Jewish student. The student, who was killed in this fantastical account, was described by Crawford as “a champion of justice, like thousands who have fallen for it in the dark records of this dark land”. The Guy Crawford letters can be found in G. K. Chesterton [Guy Crawford, pseud.], “The Letters of Three Friends,” Debater III: no.13 (March 1892), 9-11; no.14 (May 1892), 27-29; no.17 (November 1892), 70-71. These examples probably provide a fair reflection of Chesterton’s late teenage attitudes (he was 16 when he wrote the diary entry, and 17-18 when he wrote the “Guy Crawford” letters). However, his childhood and young adult worldview, as with most people, changed as he developed. An example of his developing worldview can be seen in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, published in 1904, when Chesterton was about 30 years of age. William Oddie has himself noted this protean development of views in Chesterton’s life, noting that in this novel, Chesterton expressed “distaste for modernity and progress.” Oddie quite rightly points out that this distaste was “a recent volte-face.” See William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G.K. Chesterton,” in William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing,2010), 124-137 and William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 7-8, 80-81.

This was not however the only volte-face in Chesterton’s worldview and discourse. He also changed his views about the Jews, and his early protective feelings developed into something which at its best was ambiguous and ambivalent, and at its worst hostile, stereotyping and caricaturing. A relatively early, partial, and by his later standards mild manifestation of this volte-face can be found in his novel, Manalive (1912), which reflected his worldview no less than the letters of Guy Crawford. According to the narrator of the story, “wherever there is conflict, crises come in which any soul, personal or racial, unconsciously turns on the world the most hateful of its hundred faces.” In the case of Moses Gould, the Jew in the novel, it was “that smile of the Cynic Triumphant, which has been the tocsin for many a cruel riot in Russian villages or mediaeval towns”. The transition from innocent victim in Russia to cynic-triumphant was only a partial volte-face. The more complete volte-face would come later in the early 1920s, when Chesterton started to claim that the Jews were persecuting Russians. His narratives about the Jewish tyrant were intertwined with stereotypes about the Jewish Bolshevik. For example, in February 1921, Chesterton observed that there was once “a time when English poets and other publicists could always be inspired with instantaneous indignation about the persecuted Jews in Russia. We have heard less about them since we heard more about the persecuting Jews in Russia”. According to Chesterton, it was not necessary for all Jews to support Bolshevism for it to be a Jewish movement. He stated that “it is not necessary to have every man a Jew to make a thing a Jewish movement; it is at least clear that there are quite enough Jews to prevent it from being a Russian movement”. He made a similar point in August 1920: “There has arisen on the ruins of Russia a Jewish servile State, the strongest Jewish power hitherto known in history. We do not say, we should certainly deny, that every Jew is its friend; but we do say that no Jew is in the national sense its enemy”. The “servile State” was an allusion to Hilaire Belloc’s book, The Servile State (1912). According to Belloc, the servile state is a society in which the majority of individuals and families are forced and constrained by “positive law” to labour on behalf of a tight-knit minority of rich capitalist plutocrats or tyrannical Bolsheviks (i.e. the enslavement of “the proletariat”). Chesterton was implying that Russia had been transformed into such a servile State, run for the benefit of the Jews. See G.K. Chesterton, Manalive (London: Thomas Nelson, 1912), 289; G.K. Chesterton, “The Statue and the Irishman,” New Witness, 18 February 1921, 102; G.K. Chesterton, “The Beard of the Bolshevist,” New Witness, 14 January 1921, 22; G.K. Chesterton, “The Feud of the Foreigner,” New Witness, 20 August 1920, 309; Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (1912).

Oddie also points to Chesterton’s defence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus as further proof of Chesterton’s philosemitism. In 1899, when he was about 25 years of age, Chesterton did (as Oddie rightly notes) write a poem entitled “To a Certain Nation” as a reproach to France for the injustice done to Captain Dreyfus. However, what Oddie neglects to mention is that Chesterton soon reversed his opinion. This volte-face occurred around 1906, when Chesterton was about 32 years of age. In 1906, Chesterton added a note to the second edition of The Wild Knight which reveals that by 1906 he had started to change his position about where the greater injustice lay. The note stated that whilst “there may have been a fog of injustice in the French courts; I know that there was a fog of injustice in the English newspapers.” According to the note, he was unable to reach a “proper verdict on the individual,” which he largely attributed to the “acrid and irrational unanimity of the English Press.” Chesterton maintained this antipathy about Dreyfus and his defenders throughout his life. In letters to The Nation in 1911, Chesterton referred to the Jew “who is a traitor in France and a tyrant in England,” and stated that in “the case of Dreyfus,” he was quite certain that “the British public was systematically and despotically duped by some power – and I naturally wonder what power.” He argued in 1928 that Dreyfus may or may not have been innocent, but that the greater crime was not how he had been treated at trial but how the English newspapers buried the evidence against him. According to Chesterton, “the English newspapers incessantly repeated that there was no evidence against Captain Dreyfus. They then cut out of the reports the evidence that he had been seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres; or that he had obtained a passport for Italy and then gone to Germany.” Chesterton stated that when he discovered this, “something broke inside my British serenity; and a page of print has never been the same to me again.” In another article (in 1927) Chesterton did defend a Jew, Oscar Slater, from the charge of murder, thereby seemingly showing that Chesterton was not ceaselessly antisemitic. However, seemingly unwilling to defend one Jew without sniping at another, he again repeated as part of this defence of Oscar Slater the accusation that the English newspapers left out “evidence that Dreyfus had appeared in German uniform at the German manoeuvres.” In another article, this time published in 1933, he criticised Hitler and Nazi antisemitism (something he did on a number of occasions as his defenders, including William Oddie, have pointed out), whilst yet again arguing that the English “were never told, for instance, that Dreyfus had got leave to go to Italy and used it to go to Germany; or that he was seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres.” As Julia Stapleton rightly noted in her book, Christianity, Patriotism, and Nationhood: The England of G. K. Chesterton (2009, 46), it seems that it never occurred to Chesterton to question whether there was any truth in the highly dubious allegations that Dreyfus was seen “in German uniform at the German manoeuvres,” or whether the claims “were suspect and thus beyond the realms of responsible journalism.” See G.K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight, 1st ed. (London: Grant Richards, 1900), 94-96; G.K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight, 2nd ed. (London: Brimley Johnson and Ince, 1906), viii; G.K. Chesterton to the Editor, The Nation: 18 March 1911 and 8 April 1911; G.K. Chesterton, “Dreyfus and Dead Illusions,” G.K.’s Weekly, 25 February 1928, 993; G.K. Chesterton, “In Defence of a Jew,”, G.K.’s Weekly, 27 August 1927, 575; G.K. Chesterton, “The Horse and the Hedge,” G.K.’s Weekly, 30 March 1933, 55.

As previously mentioned, William Oddie also points out (quite rightly) that Chesterton bitterly criticised the Nazis during the 1930s. He was in fact a staunch critic of Hitler and Nazi antisemitism. However, Chesterton considered his critiques of “Hitlerism” and Nazi antisemitism to be entirely consistent with his earlier stereotypes of the Jew and his proposed so-called solutions to the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Chesterton believed that Hitler was right to worry about the so-called Jewish Problem, but wrong in his approach to it. As far as Chesterton was concerned, the rise of Hitlerism clarified the urgency of solving the so-called Jewish Problem. Significantly, he not only continued to maintain his antisemitic stereotypes of the Jew from 1933 onwards, he incorporated them into the very articles in which he condemned and criticised Hitlerism. According to Chesterton in July 1933, “it is perfectly true that the Jews have been very powerful in Germany. It is only just to Hitler to say that they have been too powerful in Germany.” Chesterton argued that it will be very difficult for Hitler to persuade Germans to amputate the Jewish contributions to German culture, such as Heinrich Heine and Felix Mendelssohn. “But again,” he continued, “it is but just to Hitlerism to say that the Jews did infect Germany with a good many things less harmless than the lyrics of Heine or the melodies of Mendelssohn.” Chesterton even seemed to believe in the idea of a Jewish conspiracy, for he went on to state that “it is true that many Jews toiled at that obscure conspiracy against Christendom, which some of them can never abandon; and sometimes it was marked not be obscurity but obscenity. It is true that they were financiers, or in other words usurers; it is true that they fattened on the worst forms of Capitalism; and it is inevitable that, on losing these advantages of Capitalism, they naturally took refuge in its other form, which is Communism”. Chesterton repeated the stereotype of rich greedy Jews in other articles that were critical of Hitler. He condemned “Herr Hitler and his group” for “beat[ing] and bully[ing] poor Jews in concentration camps,” but then he stated that “what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses”. Chesterton repeated the stereotype of the pro-German Jew in his critique of Hitler. He asked, “was Hitler really so ignorant, that he did not know that the Jews were the prop of the Pro-German cause throughout the world?” Chesterton criticised Hitler, and then repeated his claim that there is a Jewish Problem. He explained that “there is a Jewish problem; there is certainly a Jewish culture; and I am inclined to think that it really was too prevalent in Germany. For here we have the Hitlerites themselves, in plain words, saying they are a Chosen Race. Where could they have got that notion? Where could they even have got that phrase, except from the Jews?” See G.K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311; G.K. Chesterton, “On War Books,” G.K.’s Weekly, 10 October 1935, 28; G.K. Chesterton, “A Very Present Help,” G.K.’s Weekly, 4 May 1933, 135; G.K. Chesterton, “A Queer Choice,” G.K.’s Weekly, 29 November 1934, 207.

William Oddie also referred to Michael Coren’s biography of Chesterton which claimed, without any source citation to substantiate the claim, that Chesterton had been defended by the Wiener Library. According to Oddie, “Coren quotes the view of the Wiener Library, the archive of anti-semitism in London, that he was not ‘seriously anti-semitic’, though he ‘played along’ and therefore ‘has the public reputation of anti-semitism.’” However, that defence has subsequently been demolished, with the director of the Wiener Library rejecting the claim in the Wiener Library News. Ben Barkow, the director of the Wiener Library, reported in 2010 that “numerous websites cite a made-up quotation by the Library stating that Chesterton was not antisemitic. Our efforts to have these false attributions removed have largely failed.” The same issue of the Wiener Library News contained a short report (by the present author) on the widely cited “Wiener Library Defence.” Michael Coren has acknowledged that he does not know the name of the librarian that he spoke to. This would suggest that the reported views were the personal sentiments of one of the librarians or volunteers who have worked at the institute, rather than, as Oddie phrases it, “the view of the Wiener Library”. It is of course impossible to verify even this much without a name – and indeed, it may be reasonably asked why the librarian’s name was not collected and cited at the time by Coren if it was supposedly the official view of the Wiener Library. See William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G.K. Chesterton,” 130; Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who was G. K. Chesterton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), 209-210; Ben Barkow, “Director’s Letter,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 2; Simon Mayers, “G. K. Chesterton and the Wiener Library Defence,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 10; Oliver Kamm, “Chesterton defence that doesn’t stand up,” Jewish Chronicle, 10 October 2013 (link). For more on this, see my blog post:The Resilient Myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism.”

For those interested, my recent book, Chesterton’s Jews, contains a thorough examination of the antisemitic stereotypes and caricatures in the literature and journalism of G. K. Chesterton.

G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc discussing Hitler and the Jews (1933-1937)

Some of G. K. Chesterton’s fervent defenders (especially those who would like to see him declared a saint) argue that he could never have been antisemitic because he was a staunch and early critic of Hitler. The argument that he could not have been antisemitic on the grounds that he criticised Hitler is weak and unsound. Interpreted in the very best light, it would only demonstrate that Chesterton, in the final years of his life, eventually overcame his anti-Jewish discourse. However, the evidence does not even support the conclusion that he overcome his antisemitic prejudice, for there is little to suggest that he actually altered or softened his opinions about Jews or the so-called “Jewish Problem” after Hitler rose to power in Germany. If anything, Chesterton considered his critiques of “Hitlerism” and Nazi antisemitism to be entirely consistent with his earlier deprecating stereotypes of the Jew and his proposed solutions to the Jewish Problem. As far as Chesterton was concerned, the rise of Hitlerism clarified the urgency of solving the so-called Jewish Problem. Significantly, he not only continued to maintain his antisemitic stereotypes of the Jew from 1933 onwards, he incorporated them into the very articles in which he condemned and criticised Hitlerism. So yes, he did say in an oft-quoted interview in 1933 that he was “quite ready to believe” that he and Belloc would “die defending the last Jew in Europe” (“Mr. G. K. Chesterton on Truculent Prussianism,” Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1933, 14.) But then he also claimed in G.K.’s Weekly in July 1933 that “it is perfectly true that the Jews have been very powerful in Germany. It is only just to Hitler to say that they have been too powerful in Germany.” Chesterton argued that it will be very difficult for Hitler to persuade Germans to amputate the Jewish contributions to German culture, such as Heinrich Heine and Felix Mendelssohn. “But again,” he continued, “it is but just to Hitlerism to say that the Jews did infect Germany with a good many things less harmless than the lyrics of Heine or the melodies of Mendelssohn.” Chesterton went on to state that “it is true that many Jews toiled at that obscure conspiracy against Christendom, which some of them can never abandon; and sometimes it was marked not be obscurity but obscenity. It is true that they were financiers, or in other words usurers; it is true that they fattened on the worst forms of Capitalism; and it is inevitable that, on losing these advantages of Capitalism, they naturally took refuge in its other form, which is Communism(G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311).

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G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933.

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Chesterton repeated the antisemitic stereotype of rich greedy Jews in other articles that were critical of Hitler. For example, in an essay entitled “On War Books,” he condemned “Herr Hitler and his group” for “beat[ing] and bully[ing] poor Jews in concentration camps,” but then he stated that “what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses” (G. K. Chesterton, “On War Books,” G.K.’s Weekly, 10 October 1935, 28). Interestingly, a later version of this essay, published posthumously in a volume entitled The End of the Armistice in 1940, omits the entire sentence in which Chesterton lamented that rich banking Jews escaped the beating and bullying (G. K. Chesterton, “On War Books,” in The End of the Armistice, edited by Frank Sheed, London: Sheed & Ward, 1940, 192). Presumably the decision to remove the offensive sentence was made by Frank Sheed, the volume’s editor and publisher.

Chesterton repeated the stereotype of the pro-German Jew in his critique of Hitler. He asked, “was Hitler really so ignorant, that he did not know that the Jews were the prop of the Pro-German cause throughout the world?” (G. K. Chesterton, “A Very Present Help,” G.K.’s Weekly, 4 May 1933, 135). Chesterton criticised Hitler, and then repeated his claim that there is a Jewish Problem. He stated that “there is a Jewish problem; there is certainly a Jewish culture; and I am inclined to think that it really was too prevalent in Germany. For here we have the Hitlerites themselves, in plain words, saying they are a Chosen Race. Where could they have got that notion? Where could they even have got that phrase, except from the Jews?” (G. K. Chesterton, “A Queer Choice,” G.K.’s Weekly, 29 November 1934, 207).

Chesterton’s criticisms of Dreyfus and the Dreyfusards, which he often repeated throughout his journalistic career (link for G. K. Chesterton and the Dreyfus affair)were also repeated in his critiques of Hitler. He stated in March 1933 that when England “wanted to abuse France, where there is really very little real Anti-Semitism, we turned the world upside about the condemnation of one isolated individual Jewish officer, who had attained a high position of confidence, and who was charged, rightly or wrongly, with violating that confidence.” Chesterton combined criticising the Germans for persecuting Jews with repeating his earlier assertions that Dreyfus was probably a Germany spy. According to Chesterton, the English were never informed that “Dreyfus had got leave to go to Italy and used it to go to Germany; or that he was seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres.” Chesterton criticised Hitler for persecuting ordinary Jews, and then observed that in the case of Dreyfus, the “particular Jew in France may or may not have been a traitor; but at least he was tried for being a traitor” (G. K. Chesterton, “The Horse and the Hedge,” G.K.’s Weekly, 30 March 1933, 55). As Julia Stapleton has rightly noted, it seems that it never occurred to Chesterton to question whether there was any truth in the highly dubious allegations that Dreyfus was seen “in German uniform at the German manoeuvres,” or whether the claims “were suspect and thus beyond the realms of responsible journalism” (Julia Stapleton, Christianity, Patriotism, and Nationhood: The England of G. K. Chesterton, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009).

Chesterton also sometimes defended Hitler as if he were a mere puppet or “tool”. In September 1934, he stated that “I may possibly cause some surprise, if I conclude the composite portrait by saying that in certain aspects, and under certain limitations, I do not believe that Hitler is altogether a bad fellow; and that he is almost certainly a much better fellow than the men who are going to use him.” Chesterton suggested that in the beginning “he did really intend to do something for the poor, and especially for the peasants.” If he “did not do enough for his better ideas, and later did much more for his worst ones,” Chesterton argued, then “the reason is quite simply that he is not the Dictator.” He concluded that Hitler’s puppeteer or “drill-sergeant” will “soon give him his marching orders again” (G. K. Chesterton, “The Tool,” G.K.’s Weekly, 6 September 1934, 8-9). He repeated this idea in March 1936, when Hitler ordered the occupation of the Rhineland in contravention of the Versailles treaty. Chesterton stated that: “I have always said that there were healthy elements in Hitlerism, and even in Hitler; indeed I rather suspect that Hitler is one of the healthy elements in Hitlerism.” Chesterton argued that Hitler was “a better man than the men around him or behind him” (G. K. Chesterton, “Why did he do it?”, G.K.’s Weekly, 26 March 1936, 18).

As mentioned near the beginning of this short essay, Chesterton did say in an interview in 1933, that he was “quite ready to believe” that he and his close friend Hilaire Belloc would “die defending the last Jew in Europe”. Like Chesterton, Belloc did criticise Nazism. Chesterton and Belloc were also both staunch critics of the eugenics movement – though Chesterton’s book on eugenics included caricatures of Jews (See G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, London: Cassell and Company, 1922; “Hilaire Belloc and the Ministry of Health,” Catholic Federationist, September 1920, 6). However, also like Chesterton, Belloc’s defence of Jews was somewhat equivocal. In his third edition of The Jews published in 1937, Belloc framed the problem of the Nazi persecution of Jews as one primarily of efficacy in solving the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Belloc asked what effect Nazi policy would “have upon a solution of the Jewish question?” “Is it,” he asked, “an advance towards a just solution of that question or not?” He observed that “there is no doubt that the Nazi attack was sincere” and that “there is no doubt that in the eyes of its authors it was provoked by a situation which they thought intolerable.” But the “Nazi attack”, he concluded, could be “neither thorough nor final.” Belloc argued that “it is not immoral, to declare a new policy and to say, ‘we will in future regard Jews as citizens of a different class from those around them, their hosts.” However, he concluded that the attack was unjust because “when things of that kind are done, justice demands that the effect shall be gradual, and that the loser by any new regulation shall be compensated.” It seems however that the main point of contention for Belloc was not that the Nazi policy was unjust, but that it was a failed policy. “The Nazi attack upon such of the Jewish race as are subject to Berlin is,” Belloc concluded, “not thorough, not final, but incomplete, and I think soon to prove abortive.” According to Belloc, “the policy has missed its mark, on lower grounds: it has missed its mark, because it has not dared to be thorough and has not had the competence to be well thought out” (Hilaire Belloc, The Jews, third edition, London: Constable, 1937, xxxix- xliii).

At best these essays by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc reveal an ambivalent sentiment about Jews (which is to say, thinly veiled antipathy towards Jews, combined with equivocal defences of them). They were more an attack on what Chesterton referred to as “truculent Prussianism”, and an equivocal criticism of Hitler, than a defence of Jews. And this was the period in which, according to his defenders, Chesterton’s discourse about Jews was at its most sympathetic.

For more about G. K. Chesterton’s antisemitism, see: Chesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G. K. Chesterton 

G. K. Chesterton and the Dreyfus Affair

Dreyfus Image

In 1899, Chesterton wrote a poem entitled “To a Certain Nation” as a reproach to France for the injustice done to Captain Dreyfus.[1] However, Chesterton soon reversed his opinion. In 1906, Chesterton added a note to the second edition of The Wild Knight which reveals that by 1906 he had started to change his position about where the greater injustice lay. The note stated that whilst “there may have been a fog of injustice in the French courts; I know that there was a fog of injustice in the English newspapers.” According to the note, he was unable to reach a “proper verdict on the individual,” which he largely attributed to the “acrid and irrational unanimity of the English Press.”[2] Chesterton maintained this antipathy about Dreyfus throughout his life. In letters to The Nation in 1911, Chesterton referred to the Jew “who is a traitor in France and a tyrant in England,” and stated that in “the case of Dreyfus,” he was quite certain that “the British public was systematically and despotically duped by some power – and I naturally wonder what power.”[3] He argued in 1928 that Dreyfus may or may not have been innocent, but that the greater crime was not how he had been treated at trial but how the English newspapers buried the evidence against him. According to Chesterton, “the English newspapers incessantly repeated that there was no evidence against Captain Dreyfus. They then cut out of the reports the evidence that he had been seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres; or that he had obtained a passport for Italy and then gone to Germany.” Chesterton stated that when he discovered this, “something broke inside my British serenity; and a page of print has never been the same to me again.”[4] In another article Chesterton did defend a Jew, Oscar Slater, from the charge of murder, thereby demonstrating that Chesterton was not unremittingly antisemitic. However, seemingly unwilling to defend one Jew without sniping at another, he again repeated the accusation that the English newspapers left out “evidence that Dreyfus had appeared in German uniform at the German manoeuvres”[5] In another article, this time published in 1933, he criticised Hitler and Nazi antisemitism (something he did on a number of occasions as his defenders have pointed out), whilst yet again asserting that the English “were never told, for instance, that Dreyfus had got leave to go to Italy and used it to go to Germany; or that he was seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres.”[6]

Chesterton’s unfavourable presentation of Captain Dreyfus can also be seen in one of his fictional works: “the Duel of Dr. Hirsch.” In this Father Brown short story, originally published in 1914, the Jew, Dr. Hirsch/Colonel Dubosc, is modelled on a diabolic composite of Judas Iscariot, Captain Dreyfus, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Jew in the story sets up a second Dreyfus affair using false evidence, playing simultaneously the role of the accused villain (Hirsch) and the accusing hero (Dubosc). Hirsch succeeds in his complex scheme to be vilified as a traitor who has given military secrets to the Germans (the accuser being his own alter-ego), and then vindicated and heralded as a hero (whilst his alter-ego slinks away). Bryan Cheyette observes that Father Brown – a reoccurring hero in many of Chesterton’s short stories, who, as Dale Ahlquist has observed, reflects “Chesterton’s own moral reasoning” – “admits to being morally confused over whether Hirsch is guilty and compares it with his ‘puzzle’ over the ‘Dreyfus case.’” [7]

At the end of “the Duel of Dr. Hirsch,” the Jewish villain is seen by Father Brown’s assistant (M. Hercule Flambeau), half way through his metamorphosis from Colonel Dubosc to Dr. Hirsch. According to the narrator of the story, Hirsch’s face, with its “framework of rank red hair,” looked like “Judas laughing horribly and surrounded by capering flames of hell.” This final image of Hirsch is reminiscent of the so-called “diabolist” that Chesterton claimed he once knew, with “long, ironical face … and red hair,” and when seen in the light of the bonfire, “his long chin and high cheek-bones were lit up infernally from underneath; so that he looked like a fiend staring down into the flaming pit.”[8]

In conclusion, it does seem, on the surface, that the Dreyfus Case was a significant turning-point in Chesterton’s discourse about Jews (from sympathetic in 1899 to hostile by 1906).  He claimed in 1928 that the Dreyfus Case marked “a great date in [his] life.” He stated that: “it was the last time I was deceived. Up to the time of the Dreyfus Case, I had believed like a child, or like a great mass of the public, that our press merely recorded what really happened; that no journalist but a chance criminal would suppress a vital fact.” It thus seems, as Julia Stapleton has rightly noted, that it never occurred to Chesterton to question whether there was any truth in the highly dubious allegations that Dreyfus was seen “in German uniform at the German manoeuvres,” or whether the claims “were suspect and thus beyond the realms of responsible journalism.” [9]

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Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Dreyfus Affair

[1]   G. K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight, 1st ed. (London: Grant Richards, 1900), 94-96.

[2]   G. K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight, 2nd ed. (London: Brimley Johnson and Ince, 1906), viii.

[3]   G. K. Chesterton to the Editor, The Nation: 18 March 1911, 1004 and 8 April 1911, 58.

[4]   G. K. Chesterton, “Dreyfus and Dead Illusions,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 25 February 1928, 993.

[5]   G. K. Chesterton, “In Defence of a Jew,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 27 August 1927, 575.

[6]   G. K. Chesterton, “The Horse and the Hedge,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 30 March 1933, 55.

[7]   G. K. Chesterton, “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch,” in G. K. Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown Stories (London: Wordsworth Classics, 2006), 213-224; Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of “the Jew” in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 192-193; Dale Ahlquist, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 166.

[8]   G. K. Chesterton, “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch,” 224; G. K. Chesterton, “The Diabolist,” Daily News, 9 November 1907, 6.

[9]   G. K. Chesterton, “Dreyfus and Dead Illusions,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 25 February 1928, 993; Julia Stapleton, Christianity, Patriotism, and Nationhood: The England of G. K. Chesterton (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009), 46.