- Lucifer in the City of LightThe Palladium Hoax and “Diabolical Causality” in Fin De Siècle France
The fin de siècle was a time of intense political conflict and recurrent public scandal in France. After overcoming its monarchist foes at the ballot box and enjoying a brief period of stability in the early 1880s, the Third Republic lurched almost without interruption through a series of “Affairs”: Boulangism, Panama, and the Dreyfus controversy. The volatility of fin de siècle French politics reflected underlying social tensions, as rapid urbanization and industrialization, the rise of mass political movements of the left and right, and rapidly changing cultural mores undermined many of the certainties on which bourgeois life rested. Among French Catholics, these fears were compounded by the rise of militantly secular regimes in both France and Italy; the end of the temporal authority of the pope; the collapse of hopes for a monarchist restoration with the death of the Count of Chambord, the last Legitimist pretender, in 1883; and the experience of national decline, which was brought home painfully by humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.1 The conflicts that Herman Lebovics, writing about a slightly later period, [End Page 177] has described as “the wars over cultural identity” left many Frenchmen in both camps willing to believe the worst about their antagonists.2 A clever trickster, the journalist Léo Taxil, was able to take advantage of this situation by means of a spectacular hoax that lasted over a decade.
Almost forgotten today, the “Palladium Affair” captivated and frightened thousands of French readers, mostly conservative Catholics, in the final years of the nineteenth century. The story of the Palladium, an alleged global satanic conspiracy led by Freemasonry against legitimate civil and religious order, was revealed in a series of publications between 1885 and 1897, most notably in Taxil’s magnum opus, Le diable au XIXème siècle, the principal subject of this article. Lurid, sensationalistic, and nearly two thousand pages long, Le diable au XIXème siècle combined political polemic with pulp fiction adventure and exoticism, a formula that quickly made it a success and ultimately a cause célèbre. Ultimately, however, the Palladium was revealed as a fraud in April 1897 by the man who had done the most to publicize it.
Taxil’s hoax or “fumisterie,” which we will examine shortly, was successful, I will maintain, because his inventions dovetailed perfectly with the prejudices, fears, and modes of thought of his readers. The worldview presented in Le diable au XIXème siècle is starkly Manichean: good versus evil, darkness versus light, a world in which sinister forces guide human destinies through means imperceptible to the casual observer. Léon Poliakov has coined the term “diabolical causality” to describe a mentality in which “the evils of this world are attributable to a malevolent entity or organization, the Jews, for example.”3 In one of the few scholarly articles on the Palladium Affair, W. R. Jones has noted that Taxil’s conservative Catholic audience to a large degree already shared this mentality, writing that “the sterile thought-world of late nineteenth century French Catholicism, insecure and uncertain of itself in the face of the new science and the new politics, was prepared to believe the worst about the motives of its enemies and to suspect that the source of the church’s discomforts might be found in some gigantic Satanic plot.”4 For reasons that will become apparent below, I will argue that Poliakov’s concept of “diabolical causality” is particularly relevant to understanding the course and impact of the Palladium Affair. [End Page 178]
Political anti-Semitism, Poliakov’s primary concern, was certainly one response of the beleaguered right to the challenges of modernity. Edouard Drumont’s La France juive charged that two hundred Jewish families were manipulating the French Republic and leading it to its ruin. Drumont continued to publicize these charges in his successful newspaper, La Libre Parole, and was a virulent critic of Captain Dreyfus and other prominent French Jews. Nor was Drumont an isolated figure; the integral nationalist Charles Maurras, another prominent anti-Dreyfusard, also condemned...