Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chesterton and the Prussians

On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany and entered World War I. In his Illustrated London News piece for September 12 that same year, Chesterton wrote about the Germans and, as far as I can tell from the table of contents in the pertinent ILN volumes, continued to write about the war every week for the next four years. In some ways, the decision is unfortunate from our perspective: the monotonous judgment on the arrogance and militarism of the Prussians and the abundance of topical references make for tedious reading. I decided last year that I needed to double my pace on Chesterton’s columns if I was ever to make it through to 1936, but then I hit the War to End All Journalistic Variety. So at the end of my Chesterton experience last year I made the wise decision to read nonconsecutive years for a while; this year covers 1915 and 1920.

Disciplining myself with delayed gratification, I’m trying to get as far as I can into 1915 before taking an advance on 1920's reward. And, sure enough, so far I haven’t quite encountered the Chesterton I so look forward to during the spring and summer. I think of him as part of the annual dessert after the brussels sprouts of a Calvin or a Hegel (or the bitter herbs of a Spengler). But the essays from 1915 only prolong the vegetable course.

In one way, though, the war serves Chesterton and his future readers well: its crucible tests Chesterton’s pet topics, and they come out shining and strong. For instance, although the Prince of Paradox never, to my knowledge, took a swing at another human being, he certainly enjoyed verbally defending his right to do so, and the pacifist protests of 1915 allowed him to argue the morality of fighting when there was some real fighting to do. As another example, he loved drawing national characters, and a Great War involving so many nations gave him the opportunity to employ those familiar characters in his analysis of events.

And there have been a few green knolls along the gray, muddy path. In the three months’ worth I’ve read as of now, Chesterton has made these points, among others:
    • The world state that the liberals want isn’t liberal at all, since it could grant no recognition to a people’s right to revolt against tyranny. 
    • National conscription may force men to fight, but they will be fighting for the wrong reason: to avoid legal consequences rather than to serve their country with a free heart. 
    • Victory doesn’t work as an ultimate goal (the passage reminded me of the Bonhoeffer I read last year), since it is neither permanent nor as noble as honor or goodness. 
    • The English throughout history have always praised the individuality of the warrior hero.
By far the best essay so far, “German Evil and English Weakness” from July 24, delivers the beautiful message that the only right way to respond to German hubris is with English humility. Does the Chancellor say the English are evil people? Then we must admit that he is right and confess our oppression of the Irish and that we have distributed property so poorly as to leave millions of English people without status or rights. The passage continues:
The savage says, “I am a good German.” And the civilized man answers, “I am a bad Englishman, and altogether unworthy of England.” In hoc signo vincet.
I find it difficult to know what to do with Chesterton’s comments about what some contemporary pacifist says that a German thinks about the Turks. But his observations on humility still have immediate effect. For my country engages in war from time to time, too, and she also has enemies – and former allies – who see her as evil, and she also has committed institutional sin. But I’m afraid that one of her sins is the loss of humility and of the understanding of the power of confession, so I don’t know that she can learn from Chesterton’s lesson and see the sign in which she could triumph.

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