Friday, July 23, 2010

Chesterton and World War One

For some time now, on and off, I've been reading my way through Chesterton's Illustrated London News articles, thanks to the Ignatius Press's Collected Works . I've reached his World War One articles now, which are rarely anthologized and which are-- to be blunt-- rather dull and plodding, compared to most of his work. Sometimes they even border on the shrill, though Chesterton made a conscious effort to avoid jingoism. (He was not afraid to criticize England in his World War One articles; but when he did, it was usually for being too German.)

But what interests me is how seldom Chesterton's attitude to the Great War is discussed. Surely it's far more significant than the (perhaps) regrettable rhetoric he sometimes used when discussing the Jews, and which has provoked so much hand-wringing. It's entirely possible that Chesterton's articles prompted young men to go and die in the trenches. His record of opposition to the Boer War, as well as his general independence of mind, would have made him the most precious of propagandists.

Mind you, I'm not assuming that the First World War was an unjustifiable war. We've all taken that message in with our mother's milk, through Wilfred Owen poems in school, Shane MacGowan singing about Suvla Bay, and Blackadder Goes Forth. Considering what other messages are pounded into us by the liberal intellectual establishment, I can't help wondering, sometimes, if this is another Big Lie, one that has passed under the radar completely.

Then I think about the carnage of the Somme and the fact that historians are still scratching their heads over what it was all for, and it's hard not to believe that this is one that Chesterton got wrong. Horribly wrong.

Argument over World War One tend to be arguments of fact-- whether German atrocities were committed in Belgium, for instance. Reading Chesterton's essays, it's clear that he saw the War as much more of a moral crusade than a defence of Britain's national interests. What he hated was Prussianism; for him, the glorification of power, the worship of blood and iron, the glamorisation of the bully. As always, it was St. George against the dragon.

Doubtless most people today would say that was a romantic view, and such romantic ideas evaporate when faced with the appalling realities of mustard gas and astronomical casuality lists. But Chesterton died in 1936; by this time, the realities of the Great War must have been well-known, but even in the autobiography that he wrote in the last year of his life, Chesterton continued to support the Allied Cause.

Much of Chesterton's philosophy could be boiled down to the idea that the romantic is the realistic; for instance, when he defends English radicalism against Tory ideas, he tends to appeal to the romance of the smallholder against that of the aristocrat, rather than railing against the tawdry tinsel of coats of arms and coronets. He attacked the aesthetes, not because they loved beauty too much, but because they had no real humility before it. ("Their emotion never impressed me for an instant, for this reason, that it never occurred to them to pay for their pleasure in any sort of symbolic sacrifice...Men might go through fire to find a cowslip. Yet these lovers of beauty could not even keep sober for the blackbird"). When he attacked divorce he was not attacking wild passion, but the want of wild passion; the passion that makes a promise for life and keeps it. I can't remember a single instance in Chesterton's work where he condemns an idea as too romantic; except perhaps the Suffragette's notion that the average man's working life was one of "going forth to wield power, to carve his own way, to stamp his individuality on the world, to command and to be obeyed".

Even the horror of trench warfare-- and the death of his own beloved brother-- didn't seem to shake Chesterton's heroic ideals. It is a testament to Chesterton's conviction that they survived even the Great War; but it's always puzzled me that his championing of the Allied cause seems hardly to have dented his reputation.


  1. Hard to answer this one, but a few thoughts:
    Insofar as WW1 freed Poland from the arrogant tyranny of Prussia, and of Bismarck and Falk (any Crusade against which was, I think, a moral one), its outcome was beneficial.
    WW1 provoked the end of the malagnant and barbarous Ottoman empire.
    The Soviet Union would probably have happened anyway, given the incompetence of the Romanovs.
    It was, of course, a tragic war, but taken with the Allied victory in 1945, justified. !914-1945 was, maybe, one long war, with a long weekend from 1918 to 1939.

  2. Thanks for that, Left-Footer (and welcome to the blog). I'm scared even to dip a toe into the historical debates, being a history idiot, but it does seem to me as though there was only one World War, with a long half-time interval. Reading the quotations that Chesterton gives from the "Prussian professors" that he so loathed makes me realize that Nazism was just a more virulent strain of a Teutonism that (as Chesterton thought) had been developing since the time of Frederick the Great.

  3. I, like you, fear to tread on WWI as I'm frightfully ignorant of the details of it, but from an interpersonal point of view, I wonder to what degree it was rather impossible for Chesterton to oppose it, or else descend into a sort of despair regarding it? I'm thinking of Ronald Knox's conversion here, as you framed it in your excellent Knox post:

    "I despair of being able to convey any impression of the next fourteen months, up to the Christmas of 1916…give me half an hour by myself, with no work pressing, and I would plunge at once into self-questioning, brooding, and something not unlike despair”.

    It seems that the magnitude of WWI--I mean both in size and in world changing horror regarding man's inhumanity to man--sort of requires an optimistic viewpoint on it, regardless of the truth of that position.

    I'm not arguing with his position at all, I can't. I'm not equipped. I'm just contemplating what would have happened to Chesterton the man, had he been opposed to the War. What sorts of pessimisms and fears might it have bred, if he felt his country to be involved in something nihilistic and black?

    Would Chesterton have been able to remain Chesterton? He is not after all, Emma Goldman. To what extent does that general disposition disable opposition to something as enormous and up-sweeping as WWI?

    I'm not sure.

  4. I do think Chesterton's support for World War One was wholehearted; and it really does seem of a piece with his philosophy. I mean, let's face it; Chesterton seemed to have seen something noble in war. It can be seen in the Napoleon of Notting Hill. And he always poured scorn on the "war to end wars" philosophy, even as the War was being fought and he might have used it propagandistically. I do think he was a sincere and convinced supporter of the War effort, and not only from a fear that the bleakness of the thing might overwhelm him otherwise. He was writing against Prussianism long before 1914.

    Of course, there is his breakdown during the War, so who knows what was going on in the deeps of his mind? I guess that's an unanswerable question.

  5. hmmm---I didn't mean to suggest that his support was inauthentic or entirely fear based; I don't think that he feared the bleakness of things otherwise. What I was getting at was his basic optimism concerning all manner of things and his basic (but not uncritical) patriotism made a support of the war more likely. I can't actually imagine a Chesterton who would be living in England at the time as an opponent of the war. He wouldn't have been Chesterton.

    It seems that the optimist would have to see the nobility in the war and the pessimist would be more likely to see the dark side of it.

    A sort of unconscious tendency to see things one way or another. Because wars are after all, terribly mixed things.