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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 * Special thanks go to Pe`re Charles Monsch of the Assumptionists and E´ tienne Franc¸ois for clarification and help with specific points in this article. Their passion for the history of the Assumptionists has greatly improved the quality of the finished piece. I would also like to thank Iain Pears, Lyndal Roper and Nicholas Stargardt for their excellent suggestions. 1 This quotation comes from an unedited collection of press cuttings held at the Assumptionist House in Vincennes, entitled ‘Le Proce`s des douze: coupures de Presse’. The manuscript is neither paginated nor dated but comes from the newspaper Le Journal, after the first day of proceedings on 23 January 1900; in referring to the Assumptionists’ metaphorical ‘biceps’, the journalist is making reference to a tradition of ‘virile’ Catholicism central to the Assumptionists’ vision of their religion. For more on such visions of masculinity on both Left and Right, see Christopher E. Forth, The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood (Baltimore, 2004), esp. 254–5 nn. 77–8, where he also discusses the importance of the idea of ‘muscular Christianity’ in England and America, by using contrasting Protestant examples. Past and Present, no. 194 (Feb. 2007) C223ThePastandPresentSociety,Oxford,2007 doi:10.1093/pastj/gtl015 low-level affair until November 1897, when E´ mile 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 Rene´ 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...