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The Assumptionists and the Dreyfus Affair
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The Assumptionists and the Dreyfus Affair

On 22 January 1900, a dozen members of the Assumptionist Order were tried before the Paris Correctional Tribunal. Unlike the crooks and prostitutes who normally sat on the defence benches, these twelve 'apostles' were a picture of piety. They wore long black soutanes belted at the waist with leather strings and hooded capes, and the younger among them had tonsured heads, a sign of humility that associated them with medieval monks. Their leaders had sumptuous beards, a sign of worldly vanity within the Roman Catholic tradition but a symbol of priestly vocation in the Orthodox 'Orient' where they were missionaries. Seemingly oblivious to the mores of the secular court, they prayed with arms outstretched in the crucifixion pose and told their rosary beads, daring the public to distract them from their religious devotions.

Despite their clerical demeanour and spiritual devotions, these men were 'made to fight in life, and, when necessary, to show their muscles [biceps] on the squares of the town on election day'.1 In the previous few years they had more than earned the description because of their role as right-wing propagandists during the Dreyfus Affair. The Jewish captain had been arrested for treason in 1894 and had been sent to solitary confinement on Devil's Island the following year. The campaign on his behalf was a [End Page 175] low-level affair until November 1897, when Émile Zola expressed his doubts concerning the safety of Dreyfus's conviction. He followed up this article with an open letter in January 1898 in which he accused the army of hiding the truth of Dreyfus's innocence. Zola's trial for defamation in 1898 turned the Case into an Affair, with left- and right-wing coalitions battling each other in the press and in the streets. From this moment onwards, the Assumptionists took on a key role, deploying anti-Semitic invective to oppose a judicial revision of the verdict.

Public opinion began to shift in favour of Dreyfus in August 1898 after the discovery of the 'faux Henry'. As early as 1896 Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert Henry had sought to add to the paltry dossier against Dreyfus by crudely doctoring documents. He committed suicide when the forgery was unmasked, and, in the aftermath of his death, Dreyfus won a retrial in Rennes in August 1899—a second court martial which again produced a guilty verdict, although with extenuating circumstances. However, this untidy conclusion — a compromise because the panel of military judges was split — was effectively overturned by a new government of 'Republican defence' explicitly organized to protect the regime from right-wing agitation. Under René Waldeck-Rousseau, the government pardoned not only Dreyfus but also the military conspirators in an effort to calm the dangerous passions the Affair had aroused. But while his remit was apparently social peace and Republican consolidation, Waldeck-Rousseau surprisingly embarked on an anticlerical policy that would become the most violent attack on the Church in the Third Republic's history.

It is only in retrospect that the targeting of the Assumptionists seems the first step in this anticlerical crusade. It appears that their destruction was envisaged primarily as a means of mollifying the radical anticlericals in his coalition and as a punishment for the Order's harsh and unrepentant anti-Dreyfusardism. They were to be the 'sacrificial lambs' rather than the first in a long line of clerical victims. To this end, the government invoked a law from the Napoleonic era, periodically used to quell political and religious dissidence, that prohibited unauthorized associations of more than twenty people.2 Using this legal device, the [End Page 176] government's case during the ensuing trial in early 1900 accused the Assumptionists of using fabulous sums to destabilize the Republic, of prejudicing the outcome of elections and of brain-washing the young. As will be seen, the court case enabled the government to trot out the most elaborate fantasies of clerical subversion and financial corruption. As the anticlerical juggernaut gained force on the Republican Left and Centre, the entire Church was portrayed as sharing Assumptionist values and political aims. The subsequent 1901 Law on Associations dispersed or exiled...