Thursday, October 16, 2014

World War Which?

Germany develops a plan for war and cultural domination. German leadership speaks of needing more room for the people whose glorious reign will extend far into the future. The German assault begins as a quick thrust through Belgium with the hopes of subjugating France before dealing with Russia. German soldiers, forgoing individuality, fight with the efficiency of a machine. And backed by purported science, the whole endeavor is proclaimed as serving the purpose of freeing the blonde-haired Teutonic race throughout Europe from the oppression of inferior races. The story sounds extremely familiar. But the date of the story may be surprising. It certainly was to me. I’ve been reading about this war in essays by G. K. Chesterton dated 1916. That’s right: from the time of the Great War, Double-You Double-You Single-Aye.

Now I’ve read (and I think I heard this in a college history class as well) that nobody wanted this war, that WWI slipped in almost accidentally. The avalanche, so the simplified story goes, started as a snowball of an assassination rolling inexorably down a snowy slope of innocent treaties. But if Germany didn’t want this war, why did they have an attack plan? If the Kaiser commandeered Belgium only to get to France, which was the ally of Russia, which was the ally of Serbia, whose national killed an archduke of Austria, which was the ally of Germany – if the elimination of the sovereign government of the free state of Belgium was really only an unfortunate knot in a diplomatic tangle, then why all the talk of freeing the Teutonic Flemish “race”?

I fell in love with Chesterton’s essays from the Illustrated London News back in the 80s. In the 90s, I bought the whole run: all thirty of years of weekly essays. In the 00s (I call them the “Oaties”), I compiled a multi-year reading plan and determined then that if I was ever going to read them all, I just had to start going through them systematically from front to back. But in the 10s (the “Teenies,” of course), when I first discovered that Chesterton’s ILN essays would never stray from the war for the whole period from August 1914 to November 1918, I was disappointed. After the novelty of the first few weekly numbers waned, the series got very tedious. As much as Chesterton rails against jingoism in several numbers, his war analysis sure sounded jingoist to me: Germany could do no right, England could do no wrong. So I decided to leave the strict chronological plan, reading one year of essays from after the war in between each year of essays from during the war.

But in the last week, after thinking I’d just have to force myself through 1916 in order to reward myself with 1921, I found that Chesterton’s war-time journalism suddenly got really good. Instead of just railing generically about the evil Germans, he quotes German press and propaganda about racial superiority and destiny to dominate and other hideous nonsense. Instead of just praising England’s righteous ways, he outlines (and deplores) specific English faults, and then compares specific statements by the English government and press about English mistakes to statements by the German government and press regarding German mistakes (which they don’t admit to). Sure enough, the comparison makes the Germany of 1916 look self-righteous, irrational, inhumane, and evil. And sadly, the knowledge of what would happen in Germany over the next quarter century tells me that Chesterton wasn’t just finding weird misstatements by irrelevant persons to display and deplore.

Speaking of the succeeding years, hindsight is apparently not the only way to see the inevitable repeat of the European conflict. Chesterton sounds a chilling, prophetic tocsin several times through the essays from 1916: the Allies must secure an absolutely devastating victory over Germany, because without one, the way Germany’s leaders talk, they’re bound to attempt the domination of Europe all over again. Chesterton calls the conflict in 1916 the Great War and a World War, but this observant, prescient man never calls it The War to End All Wars.

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