Anti-Semitism without borders

At the confluence of religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism, the network that Mgr Benigni set up in the 1920s and developed in several countries. A way of competing with Jewish and communist enemies, perceived as free from borders.

In this revised version of her thesis defended in 2016 at Sciences Po, Nina Valbousquet delivers a detailed and stimulating analysis of anti-Semitism in certain Catholic circles in the 1920s and 1930s. Centered on Umberto Benigni (1862-1934), this study is not a biography, but an analysis of the network that this Italian prelate led with other members of the clergy, such as the Italian Paolo De Töth (1881-1965) and the French Paul Boulin (1875-1933) and Ernest Jouin (1844-1932), priest of the Parisian parish of Saint-Augustin.

Secret networks

The first part of Benigni’s life was well known thanks to the work of Émile Poulat on Sapinière, a network tracking – within the Catholic Church – “modernists” accused of accepting innovations such as the historical-critical method analysis of biblical texts. First encouraged by Pope Pius X, this secret network was officially dissolved in 1921.

Nina Valbousquet focuses on another period of Benigni’s life: the 1920s, characterized by the establishment of a new network centered on anti-Semitism, little institutionalized and mobilizing beyond Catholic circles. The author relies on several archival funds (Benigni funds at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at theVatican Apostolic Archivio ; Vatican archives of the pontificate of Pius XI), as well as on both French printed sources (Catholic bloc, International Review of Secret Societies) than Italian (Fede e Ragione). Opened with a stimulating introduction emphasizing that the Church’s repentance movement of the 1990s and 2000s paradoxically contributed to making Catholic anti-Semitism taboo, the book includes six chapters, accompanied by a list of sources, a bibliography and of an index of names.

After presenting in a first chapter the integral environment brought together by Benigni before 1918, Valbousquet insists on the founding role of the “transnational moment of anti-Semitism” of the diffusion of Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the years 1919-1921 (chap. 2), which opened the way to the structuring in 1923 of an anti-Semitic international – the Roman Entente – relayed by multiple press organs (chaps. 3 and 4). Chapters 5 and 6 address the way in which anti-Semitism is used in internal conflicts within the Catholic Church, while integral currents, like that of Benigni, are gradually marginalized both under the effect of the condemnation of “politics of ‘first’ of Action Française as well as a new sensitivity to religious and racial persecution.

We will emphasize here two strong points of the analysis of Benigni’s network: anti-Semitism and the international dimension.

Latinity versus Aryanness

The first point is undoubtedly the most important. Catholic and anti-Semitic: the thesis of the work is contained in its title. From the introduction, Valbousquet distances the memorial or philosophical screens which, following Hannah Arendt, have made anti-Semitism a “secular ideology” by dissociating racial anti-Semitism from religious anti-Judaism.

Continuing the work of Giovanni Miccoli, the author analyzes the concomitance and confluence of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. The detailed study of the productions of the Benignian group shows how the Jewish question, present before 1914 (Beilis trial), became essential in the post-war period, linking up with anti-communism and anti-Zionism. Anti-Semitism comes to irrigate intransigentism – this ideology of rejection of the world born from the French Revolution – both through the social vein (Judaism as a money power associated with the capitalist world) and the conservative one (the Jews symbols of emancipation and moral and social dissolution).

The group’s theses are indisputably racial (a convert, even baptized, remains a Jew and conversion is referred to an eschatological framework) and mobilize a paranoid and dehumanizing discourse. Valbousquet shows that this hybrid anti-Semitism is constructed from religious motifs (themes of the Golden Calf, the deicidal people) and borrowings from far-right circles. However, if Aryan racism was first accepted in 1923-1924, the swastika was quickly rejected as an occultist symbol and the Benigian group ended up claiming, against Germanic Aryanness, a competing Latinity, as well as the idea of Europe.

Well before the Roman attempts at an alliance of fascisms and the Italian racial laws, Benigni and his friends dreamed, from 1926, of a federation of European nationalists cemented by anti-Semitism. Composite and early, this Catholic anti-Semitism (which advocates discriminatory measures, but rejects persecution in the name of charity) is also ambivalent and testifies to the ideological plasticity of hatred of Jews at that time.

However, the work does not limit itself to describing this Catholic anti-Semitism. It shows how the latter is managed by the ecclesial institution. If the ecclesiastics of the group, who benefit from solid institutional positions (Benigni and Jouin are apostolic protonotaries) are never sanctioned, their careers are damaged (Benigni leaves the Academy of noble ecclesiasticals in 1923, De Töth and Boulin are isolated in parishes rural after 1929), their writings are monitored by bishops advised by Rome and, above all, the group is hardly renewed.

This internal regulation targets less anti-Semitism as such than the verbal excesses that the latter causes and, above all, its use for polemical purposes internal to the ecclesial institution. Indeed, Benigni’s group does not hesitate to Judaize, in order to denigrate them, the movements (like the Christian Democrats) or the high personalities (including Cardinal Gasparri) that it rejects, in turn accelerating awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism.

In doing so, Nina Valbousquet’s study offers a useful counterpoint to recent historiographical contributions on Catholic philosemitism (Laurence Deffayet, Agathe Mayeres-Rebernik, Olivier Rota), while showing that these phenomena should not be dissociated, but are clarified each other.

International collaborations and local roots

The work also offers a substantial contribution to transnational history, a field to which studies of religion are increasingly focused. Despite its limited nature, the group operates on an international scale: the actors, who are very mobile, circulate, especially between France and Italy (stays, meetings), but this is thanks to the dissemination of Protocols of the Elders of Zion that this internationalization intensifies.

The members of the Benignian group are first of all translators: Mgr Jouin in book, from 1920, a French translation and an Italian version was provided by Fede e Ragione. Furthermore, it is around Protocols that links were established in the United States with Henry Ford, in England with the Britons, to which were added contacts with personalities of Russian emigration in France and in the Scandinavian countries. This internationalization, conceived as a way of competing with Jewish and communist enemies perceived as free from borders, is not without contradictions.

First of all, these international collaborations are not obvious in these nationalist circles, especially in a period where war resentments remain very present. Furthermore, by collaborating with foreign and non-Catholic (or even anticlerical, like Old France by Urbain Gohier), ecclesiastics – who must not fall into interconfessionalism – are forced to develop very flexible institutional forms. They articulate a “hard core” of activists, masked by pseudonyms, with “concentric circles” loosely linked by intermittent information sheets, forming a vaporous whole whose effectiveness depends, in the final analysis and paradoxically, on the quality of local roots, as in Fiesole or in the Toulouse region.

At the end of this work, certain points still arouse curiosity. If the focus here is skillfully shifted towards the Latin world and the 1920s – less studied than the Germanic side and the 1930s – we can question the continuities between the two groups. To what extent did “Benigian” anti-Semitism prepare the way for the adoption, in the 1930s and 1940s, of “Germanic” anti-Semitism?

Furthermore, several avenues mentioned in the conclusion of the work deserve further investigation, such as the translations of this Catholic anti-Semitism towards Spain from 1935 then towards Latin America, or even the permeability to the conspiratorial dynamics of certain Christian circles, which perceive themselves as a “prophetic minority and even persecuted by the agents of secularization and liberalism” (p. 282).

In all cases, it is a resolutely international history that takes into account religion to restore the porous and composite character of political ideologies that Nina Valbousquet’s rich work, with its still current resonance, invites.