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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]


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.

The resilient myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism

A popular defence of G. K. Chesterton is that he could not have been an antisemite because the Wiener Library, one of the UK’s key institutes dedicated to researching antisemitism and the Holocaust, has defended him from the charge. Michael Coren instituted this defence in The New Statesman in 1986. He stated that the “Wiener Institute, the best monitors of anti-semitism in Britain, does not regard Chesterton as a culprit.”[1] Three years later, Coren attributed the following statement to the Wiener Library:

“The difference between social and philosophical anti-semitism is something which is not fully understood. … With Chesterton we’ve never thought of a man who was seriously anti-semitic on either count. He was a man who played along, and for that he must pay a price; he has, and has the public reputation of anti-semitism. He was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.”[2]

Coren did not provide a source for this alleged statement so it is not clear whether it was intended as an official or unofficial position of the Library. The Wiener Library informed me that “since the name of the person is not given, we can only suppose it to be an invention or else someone who was not entitled to talk, officially or unofficially, on the Library’s behalf.”[3]

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.”[4] The same issue of the Wiener Library News contained a short report (by the present author) on this Wiener Library Defence.[5]

WLN page 1         WLN page 2        WLN page 10

Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, Issue 61. Front cover and pages 2 and 10 (click on images to zoom in)

Significantly, in an article published in 1963 about antisemitism, the Wiener Library Bulletin did make a brief statement about Chesterton, but only to report that “no Briton, least of all a Catholic, will feel pride in the obsessions of G. K. Chesterton.”[6]

The myth that the Wiener Library defended Chesterton has been recycled in a number of books, newspapers, and periodicals as if it was established truth. Joseph Pearce reproduced Coren’s defence in his own biography of Chesterton published in 1996.[7] Aidan Mackey referred to it in a letter to the editor of the Jewish Chronicle in 1997.[8] Ian Boyd, editor of The Chesterton Review and president of the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture, and Stratford Caldecott, chairman of the journal Second Spring, have also referred to it in more recent statements denying Chesterton’s antisemitism.[9] William Oddie’s essay on the so-called “philosemitism” of Chesterton also cites the Wiener Library defence.[10] The resilience of this myth is demonstrated by the fact that there are still numerous internet pages that refer to it.[11]

Update (6 September 2013): In response to a request to cite his source for the statement attributed to the Weiner Library, Michael Coren stated in a twitter posting to @Barthsnotes and @OliverKamm (Oliver Kamm) on 2 September: “Conducted interview in 86, with the librarian there who spent the morning with me. 27 yrs ago. No idea of his name.” This would suggest that at best the reported views were the personal sentiments of one of the many librarians who have worked at the Wiener Library but were unauthorised to speak officially on the Library’s behalf, rather than the Wiener Library itself. It is of course impossible to verify without a name – and indeed, it may be reasonably asked why the librarian’s name was not collected and cited at the time.

Update (23 September 2013): In an online article published on 13 September, Coren stated that he discussed his research with a librarian at the Wiener Library but that he has “no name” and “no proof” as it was a quarter of a century ago. [12] This episode is discussed in Ludicrous, surreal” defence of G. K. Chesterton“.

According to Oliver Kamm in the Jewish Chronicle (online edition, 10 October 2013; print edition, 11 October 2013), when he wrote to Coren to ask him about his statement about the Wiener Library defending Chesterton, Coren replied, “regretting that he could not recall the name of the librarian with whom he spoke and that his records from this pre-digital age had not all travelled with him to his current home in Canada.”

Notes for the resilient myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism

1.     Michael Coren, “Just bad friends,” review of G. K. Chesterton, by Michael Ffinch, New Statesman, 8 August 1986, 30.
2.     Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who was G. K. Chesterton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), 209-210.
3.     Email to author from Michael Annegarn, Wiener Library (approved by Ben Barkow, Director of the Wiener Library), 22 March 2010.
4.     Ben Barkow, “Director’s Letter,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 2.
5.     Simon Mayers, “G. K. Chesterton and the Wiener Library Defence,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 10.
6.     “Christian Conscience on Trial,” Wiener Library Bulletin XVII, no. 4 (October 1963), 1.
7.     Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 448.
8.     Aidan Mackey, “Chesterton: Case for the defence,” Jewish Chronicle, 19 December 1997, 23.
9.     See Ian Boyd, “Introduction,” Chesterton Review XXXII, no. 3&4 (Winter 2006), 276; Ian Boyd, Stratford Caldecott and Aidan Mackey, “Chesterton’s alleged ‘anti-Semitism,’” http://www.secondspring.co.uk/spring/semitism11.htm (downloaded 1 May 2013).
10.   William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton,” in William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010),130.
11.   For some examples, see: https://simonmayers.com/2013/10/14/wikipedia-g-k-chesterton-and-the-wiener-library-defence/
12. Michael Coren, “‘Ludicrous, surreal episode’ against G. K. Chesterton returns,” The B.C. Catholic, 13 September 2013, http://bcc.rcav.org/opinion-and-editorial/3069-canonization-attempt-resurrects-anti-semitic-claim (downloaded 17 September 2013).

Further reports of G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization being advanced: The BBC, Independent and Spectator

Chesterton photo

Since my last blog posting (17 August 2013) there have been further reports of G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization being advanced. In addition to an on-going flurry of twitter posts, there have now been online reports by the Independent, the Spectator and the BBC. According to the BBC: “Bishop Peter Doyle said he had spoken to the ACS and would appoint a priest to make ‘tentative inquiries’” (the ACS is the American Chesterton Society). This, according to the BBC, “is the first official step towards the possible canonization of Mr Chesterton.”

The following are some of the posts relating to this event:

The BBC: “G.K. Chesterton: Bishop of Northampton probes sainthood claims”

The Independent (Oscar Quine): “Saint GK Chesterton? Bishop begins preliminary tests for canonisation of writer”

The Spectator (Melanie McDonagh): “Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint”

Catholic News Agency (Kevin Jones): “Possible sainthood cause for Chesterton sparks excitement”

Catholic Herald (Francis Phillips): “I hope Chesterton is canonised and made a new patron saint of journalists”

Catholic Herald (William Oddie): “Chesterton’s Cause has not yet been officially opened: but this is surely the beginning of the end of many years of prayer for that day to come”

Jewish Chronicle (Oliver Kamm): “G K Chesterton: a writer unfit to be a saint”

It will be interesting to see if Chesterton’s antisemitic stereotypes and caricatures of greedy, usurious, capitalist, bolshevist, cowardly, disloyal and secretive Jews, which appeared not only in his fictional works but also in his journalism and articles in the New Witness and G.K.’s Weekly, will be taken into account when considering his worthiness to be considered a saint. It is of course not my place to venture a theological judgement on the holiness of Chesterton and his suitability for beatification. A number of individuals recognised by the Church as saints also wrote texts and sermons which contained hostile images and stereotypes of “the Jew” (for example, John Chrysostom’s Adversus Judaeos). Whilst I decline to advance a religious or theological opinion, I would venture a purely social one. Considering Chesterton’s discourse about “the Jew” and the so-called “Jewish Problem”, which was replete with ugly deprecating stereotypes, the appropriateness and wisdom of considering him a saint or a prophet is, from the perspective of promoting understanding rather than misunderstanding between Christians and Jews, at the very least questionable.

Chesterton, Jews and Sainthood: Bishop approves investigation of G. K. Chesterton’s Cause

Many of G. K. Chesterton’s admirers fervently deny the presence of anti-Jewish hostility in his writings. For example, in 2008, a special double issue of Gilbert Magazine, the periodical of the American Chesterton Society, devoted sixty pages to “Chesterton & the Jews.” According to the editor, Sean Dailey, the aim of the issue was to “deal in a thorough and forthright manner with the oft-repeated accusation against G. K. Chesterton, that he was an anti-Semite.” According to Dailey, in the various essays and reviews in the issue of Gilbert Magazine, “we take the ‘mean and wretched lie’ that Chesterton was an anti-Semite, and tear the entrails out of it.” According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, the accusation of antisemitism is “poisonous.” Ahlquist later stated that “it’s an unfair charge, and it gets repeated and repeated.” The accusation, he concluded, “has to stop.” See Sean P. Dailey, “Tremendous Trifles,” Gilbert Magazine 12, no. 2&3 (November/December 2008), 4; Dale Ahlquist, “Chesterton and Anti-Semitism: A Personal Reflection,” Gilbert Magazine 12, no. 2&3 (November/December 2008), 6-7; Dale Ahlquist, “I am Fond of Jews,” Gilbert Magazine 12, no. 2&3 (November/December 2008), 20-27; “Chesterton and the Jews,” Chesterton Review XXXV, no.1&2 (Spring/Summer 2009), 216.

In his booklet on Chesterton as a prophet for the twenty-first century, Aidan Mackey described it as “deplorable that it is still sometimes necessary to deal with the empty old charge that G.K.C. was anti-Jewish.” He argued that Chesterton did attack Jews, “but not for being Jews, but only as individuals, for what they did or for what he genuinely thought they had done.” Mackey concludes that Chesterton was not anti-Jewish, and that he wrote in “more open days when differences could be discussed without incurring the wrath of the Politically Correct.” “Only Jewish people,” he suggests, “are to be held exempt from any criticism at all.” See Aidan Mackey, G. K. Chesterton: A Prophet for the 21st Century (IHS Press, [2009]), 23, 28.

Chesterton however did not confine himself to discussing religious or cultural differences, or the faults of particular Jews as individuals. My recent book, Chesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G. K. Chesterton, reveals that he repeatedly stereotyped and caricatured the Jew qua Jew in his fictional and non-fictional works and journalism. This began in the early twentieth century. Before the twentieth century, Chesterton expressed sympathy for Jews and hostility towards antisemitism. He was agitated by Russian pogroms and felt sympathy for Captain Dreyfus. However, from circa 1906 onwards, he started to fear the presence of Jews in Christian society. He frequently repeated antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish greed, usury, capitalism, bolshevism, cowardice, disloyalty and secrecy. Rather than defending Dreyfus, as he had at the end of the nineteenth century, he started to argue that there was evidence that Dreyfus had obtained a passport for Italy and then secretly gone to Germany, where he had been seen in German uniform at German army manoeuvres. He also argued that the Jewish Problem was an intrinsic fact that needed to be recognised and addressed.

One explanation for the heated language of some of Chesterton’s defenders is that some believe that Chesterton was an important figure within the Church, perhaps even a prophet or a saint. In fact, a growing number of people would like to see Chesterton canonised as a saint, and no doubt some are concerned that the accusation of antisemitism might prove an obstacle to such efforts. The holiness of Chesterton was raised at least as early as 1986, when Cardinal Emmett Carter, the Archbishop of Toronto, stated that “there is no dearth of holy lay persons, many of whom have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and in the world. Such, in my opinion, was Gilbert Keith Chesterton.” He did not suggest starting a Cause for Chesterton’s beatification, but only because of the problems he believed it might create. One such problem was that “if Chesterton ever starred in a canonisation process,” some of his remarks “might upset the whole ecumenical movement.” However, according to William Oddie, Cardinal Carter subsequently “withdrew his reservations.” See Gerald Emmett Carter, “Homily for the Mass of Anniversary of the Death of G. K. Chesterton,” Chesterton Review XII, no.4 (1986), 439-440; William Oddie, “A New Kind of Saint?”, Catholic World Report, June 1995, 59.

There is a vein of deep admiration for Chesterton in Argentina, and Basil Hume, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster from 1976 to 1999, was approached in the early 1990s by a number of important people from Argentina with a proposal to have Chesterton beatified. The letter that was sent to the Cardinal Archbishop, which asked for the initiation of procedures that would lead to the beatification of Chesterton, was signed by politicians, diplomats and an archbishop. According to a report posted in the Daily Mail Online  just a few days ago (11 August 2013) by Jonathan Petre: “Just days before he was elected Pope in March, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, wrote to a Chesterton society in Argentina approving the wording of a private prayer calling for his canonisation.” According to the report, “Pope Francis is known to be a fan of Chesterton’s work.”

A number of Chesterton’s current admirers and defenders embrace a similar hagiographic discourse. William Oddie has argued that Chesterton should be recognised as a saint on a number of occasions. Dale Ahlquist refers to Chesterton as “the apostle of common sense,” but like Aidan Mackey, he suggests that he could also be called “a prophet.” One of his “prophecies,” Ahlquist suggests, was his warnings about Hitler and the violent persecution of the Jews. Like William Oddie, Ahlquist has also argued that Chesterton should be recognised as an important saint whose Cause for beatification needs to be moved forward. See William Oddie, “A New Kind of Saint?”, Catholic World Report, June 1995; William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010), 1-19, 124-140; William Oddie, “The Holiness of Chesterton,” Catholic Herald, 5 June 2009, 8; Dale Ahlquist, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 173-174; Dale Ahlquist, “St. G.K.C.?”, an episode of G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, EWTN Global Catholic Network.

The Catholic Herald reported in June 2009 that Chesterton’s reputation for holiness was going to be considered by a number of scholars at a conference in Oxford in July 2009. The Chesterton Society has produced prayer cards with a prayer for the intercession of Chesterton. These have been well received in America, have been translated into Italian and Spanish, and according to Oddie, “indications are emerging that the prayer is being widely used, sometimes in circumstances of grave illness.” A website for “the Catholic G. K. Chesterton Society” has taken the text from the prayer cards and produced a version for people to print out. The prayer cards were distributed and well received at a one-day symposium at Beaconsfield in October 2010. The question of the holiness of Chesterton was again raised at this gathering. The main focus of the symposium was G. K. Chesterton and Cardinal Newman. Newman was recently beatified and it seems that one purpose of the symposium was to suggest that Chesterton was the natural successor to the Cardinal. In June 2009, Oddie observed that there could be no Cause towards Chesterton’s beatification until evidence of a cult could be demonstrated, though he suggested that such a movement was emerging in America. He suggested in 2010 that a similar movement is emerging in England, and that “a cult of Gilbert Chesterton” has existed for many years in other countries such as Italy and Argentina. See “Scholars to meet in Oxford to discuss Cause of Chesterton,” Catholic Herald, 5 June 2009, 1; William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010), 1-19, 124-140; William Oddie, “The Holiness of Chesterton,” Catholic Herald, 5 June 2009, 8.

A flurry of twitter posts, blog posts and news reports in the past few days suggest that the Cause of Chesterton has just been moved forward significantly. According to these reports, which can be found on the online reporting and blogs for the Daily Mail, Catholic Herald and Catholic News Agency, the present Pope is sympathetic to the Cause of Chesterton (having approved the wording of a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession), and the Bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle, has ordered an examination of Chesterton’s life which may be the first step in a formal campaign for his canonisation. According to William Oddie’s recent blog posting in the Catholic Herald  (7 August 2013), the Bishop has given the Chesterton Society permission to say that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for [G K] Chesterton”.

It is of course common to find some faults with any potential saint. In fact it has been common practice for “the Promoter of the Faith” – or ‘Devil’s Advocate’ – to present reasons against the Cause proceeding. Cardinal Carter’s original reservations were principally that the Devil’s Advocate would bring to light narratives that might upset ecumenical movements. However, the proposition that Chesterton only disliked particular Jews (the argument of his defenders) is problematized by a detailed examination of his discourse, with its proposed solutions to the so-called Jewish Problem and its antisemitic stereotypes and caricatures of greed, usury, capitalism, bolshevism, cowardice, disloyalty and secrecy, which were generalised not to a handful of particular Jews but to the Jews in general. It seems fair to conclude that from the perspective of promoting understanding rather than misunderstanding between Christians and Jews, the wisdom of considering Chesterton a saint is at the very least questionable.