Simon Deutz (18021844), 1800s, Ader Paris

Por­trait of Car­o­line Fer­di­nande of Bour­bon-Two Sicilies (1798 – 1870), Duchess of Berry, Thomas Lawrence

What does it mean to write about a Jew­ish traitor?

This is the ques­tion I asked myself as I began research­ing Simon Deutz — a rabbi’s son who made head­lines around the world when he betrayed the duchesse de Berry in 1832 — for my book The Betray­al of the Duchess. Despite Deutz’s infamy at the time, his sto­ry has been large­ly for­got­ten. His­to­ri­ans have been reluc­tant to res­ur­rect it, afraid that it would only per­pet­u­ate stereo­types of Jew­ish greed and per­fidy. But in fact, a very dif­fer­ent les­son can be drawn from his case.

The Rev­o­lu­tion of 1830 in France forced the Bour­bon roy­al fam­i­ly into exile, replac­ing them with their more lib­er­al cousin, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans. Two years lat­er, Maria Car­oli­na de Bour­bon-Sicile, duchesse de Berry, launched a bloody civ­il war to recon­quer the throne for her eleven-year-old son. Act­ing as her son’s prospec­tive regent, this unlike­ly mil­i­tary com­man­der man­aged to assem­ble a loy­al band of par­ti­sans, drawn from some of the most influ­en­tial noble fam­i­lies in France. For the most part, she chose her asso­ciates well: they were all will­ing to die for her and for what they con­sid­ered to be the legit­i­mate” monar­chy. She made one mis­cal­cu­la­tion and it would prove her undoing.

On the sur­face, Simon Deutz was an unlike­ly can­di­date to become the con­fi­dant of the duchess. A com­mon­er and an immi­grant to France from Ger­many, he had grown up in the Marais in cen­tral Paris, at the time a poor neigh­bor­hood. By the time he reached his twen­ties, he had failed at a num­ber of dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sions. Not the type to asso­ciate with roy­al­ty. But what made the duchess’s choice most sur­pris­ing was that Deutz was orig­i­nal­ly a Jew. Indeed, his father, Emanuel Deutz, was the chief rab­bi of France. But Simon was born in 1802, eleven years after France became the first Euro­pean coun­try to grant Jews full civ­il rights; by the time he came of age, a new gen­er­a­tion of Jews had begun to move from the mar­gins into the main­stream of French society.

The betray­al of the duchess had become a myth that could be used by anti­semites to con­vince a gullible pub­lic to accept their lies about Jew­ish avarice and duplicity.

Simon Deutz took full advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rein­vent him­self. In 1828, he deeply wound­ed his father — and shocked the French Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty — by con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism. So big a stir did the abju­ra­tion of the chief rabbi’s son cre­ate that Pope Gre­go­ry XVI wel­comed him in Rome and put him on the pay­roll of the Holy See. And it was the pope him­self who intro­duced Simon to the duchess as some­one she could trust as she pre­pared to launch her civ­il war.

In real­i­ty, how­ev­er, Deutz had no loy­al­ty to fam­i­ly, reli­gion, or polit­i­cal par­ty. He want­ed to get ahead and he saw work­ing for the duchess as his oppor­tu­ni­ty: she even promised to make him a baron as soon as she returned to pow­er. At first, Deutz per­formed his duties with dis­cre­tion, car­ry­ing her secret requests for aid to the courts of Spain and Por­tu­gal. But after she suf­fered a series of mil­i­tary set­backs and it seemed like her war would fail, he switched sides. In exchange for 500,000 francs, he promised the French Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or to lead the police to the attic in the city of Nantes where he knew she was hid­ing. After a dra­mat­ic all-night search, the police even­tu­al­ly appre­hend­ed the duchess on Novem­ber 6, 1832. Deutz col­lect­ed his mon­ey and then watched in hor­ror as the rev­e­la­tion of his betray­al set off what would become mod­ern France’s first anti­se­mit­ic affair.”

In the press across France and around the world, a nar­ra­tive took shape over the next few months that cast Simon Deutz as a mon­ster and a vil­lain. Inter­est­ing­ly, how­ev­er, it was only right-wing writ­ers, intense­ly loy­al to the Bour­bons, who made the link between Deutz’s trea­son” and his Jew­ish back­ground. Dis­re­gard­ing Deutz’s con­ver­sion, they repeat­ed­ly referred to him as a Jew and more specif­i­cal­ly as a mod­ern incar­na­tion of Judas. Vic­tor Hugo went so far as to write an entire poem con­demn­ing Deutz, whom he called not even a Jew,” and a dis­gust­ing pagan.” In pop­u­lar engrav­ings from the time, Deutz was depict­ed with fea­tures that would lat­er become famil­iar in anti­se­mit­ic car­i­ca­tures — a small stature, swarthy com­plex­ion, and thick lips. Fear­ful of a pogrom, the lead­ers of the French Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty put pres­sure on Deutz’s father, the chief rab­bi, to renounce his son. When the rab­bi refused, they attempt­ed to remove him from his post. Simon even­tu­al­ly fled to Eng­land and then to New Orleans, where he seems to have died under an assumed name a decade lat­er. His real name remained a syn­onym for treach­ery in France into the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth century.

Simon Deutz (18021844), 1800s, Ader Paris

Deutz large­ly deserved his bad rep­u­ta­tion. In a self-jus­ti­fy­ing mem­oir pub­lished in 1835, three years after the affair, he claimed he had betrayed the duchess to save France from civ­il war, but it was clear that his real moti­va­tion was a desire for self-advance­ment. Even if his crime did not amount to trea­son against France, as his crit­ics at the time alleged, he remains a deeply unap­peal­ing fig­ure — a liar, a nar­cis­sist, and a turn­coat. This may explain why so few recent his­to­ri­ans have tak­en up this case, despite its unde­ni­able impor­tance for French Jew­ish his­to­ry. One his­to­ri­an tried to reha­bil­i­tate Deutz by claim­ing he had not accept­ed mon­ey for the betray­al. How­ev­er, Deutz clear­ly did: con­tained in papers of the Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or is a receipt in Deutz’s hand­writ­ing for the enor­mous sum he was paid.

So why revive the case — espe­cial­ly at a time when anti­semitism is once again on the rise? Deutz’s fate is worth reex­am­in­ing because it illus­trates some­thing essen­tial about how anti­semitism func­tions. Call­ing Deutz a scoundrel — as almost every­one did at the time — was not anti­se­mit­ic. But asso­ci­at­ing his crime with his Jew­ish­ness — as only the right-wing did — most clear­ly was. By blam­ing an entire peo­ple for the actions of one man, these writ­ers gen­er­at­ed the script for lat­er anti­se­mit­ic affairs. More­over, the case rep­re­sents a deci­sive moment in the devel­op­ment of mod­ern anti­semitism: it was the first time that hatred of the Jews became a key part of right-wing ide­ol­o­gy in France. Lat­er anti­semites would refer back to it as a model.

Indeed, Édouard Dru­mont, the author of the enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar 1886 anti­se­mit­ic screed Jew­ish France, which served as a mod­el for Hitler, rel­ished the sto­ry of the betray­al. How all the actors fit their roles!” he said of the duchess and Deutz, who struck him as per­fect incar­na­tions of the noble Aryan and the dan­ger­ous Semi­te. Dru­mont would repeat­ed­ly invoke Deutz’s actions to fan the flames of hatred against Jews, help­ing to pave the way for the Drey­fus Affair. When rumors began to cir­cu­late in 1894 that there was a trai­tor in the army, sus­pi­cion fell on Alfred Drey­fus, a Jew, because Drey­fus fit a famil­iar pat­tern — an appar­ent lin­eage of treach­ery inau­gu­rat­ed by Judas and con­tin­ued by Deutz. The betray­al of the duchess had become a myth that could be used by anti­semites to con­vince a gullible pub­lic to accept their lies about Jew­ish avarice and duplicity.

Unlike Alfred Drey­fus, Simon Deutz was not an inno­cent vic­tim. His sto­ry lacks the moral uplift of the Drey­fus Affair: it con­tains no J’accuse!” moment of right­eous indig­na­tion, or hap­py end­ing in which good tri­umphs over evil. And yet there is much to be gained by exam­in­ing his life. It is only by con­fronting the past in all its com­plex­i­ty that that we are able to face the chal­lenges of the present.

Mau­rice Samuels is the Bet­ty Jane Anlyan Pro­fes­sor of French at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, chair of the pro­gram in Juda­ic stud­ies, and founder and direc­tor of the Yale Pro­gram for the Study of Anti­semitism. He is the author of three books, includ­ing The Spec­tac­u­lar Past, which won the Gad­dis Smith Inter­na­tion­al Book Prize, and Invent­ing the Israelite, which received the MLA’s Scaglione Prize. Pri­or to teach­ing at Yale, he was a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia after com­plet­ing his Ph.D. at Har­vard. He received a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship in 2015. He lives in New York and New Haven, Connecticut.