Lecture 95: History Lessons from One Who Was There – Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The Apostolate of Common Sense

Lecture 95: History Lessons from One Who Was There

Essays from The Illustrated London News, 1917-19

Illustrated London News 1917-19

Volume 31 of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton

Recent historians, whose business it is to re-write history, have argued that America should not have entered World War I. And some have even argued that England should not have entered that war. Strange to say, I have not found any historians who argue that Germany should not have entered the war. It seems that the case can only be made for Germany’s enemies to have stayed out of the war, in which case, it certainly would have been a quick victory instead of a long defeat.

The historians base their arguments on a cold, detached analysis of political gains versus losses. But it would be a good education for them (and for everyone else) to read G.K. Chesterton. In this case, his Illustrated London News essays from 1917 to 1919. They would gain a perspective beyond the political, territorial, and material interests of the war. They would understand firsthand the philosophies that were being attacked and defended in this war.

“At the back of all modern history,” says Chesterton, “is that war with the barbarians which filled the Dark Ages and has returned in our own.” He sees that Christendom is under attack by an enemy who has embraced a non-Christian, Norse heritage, who is swept away by racial theories of superiority, and who operates without the restraints of common Christian decency. They no longer believe that warfare should be confined to the battlefield and to soldiers, but that it can now include “the butchery of unarmed and unoffending folk,” (e.g. Germany’s torpedoing of the passenger ship Lusitania, its atrocities on civilians during its unprovoked invasion of Belgium.)

Chesterton certainly wants peace, but he has no time for pacifists. “Man is not a fighting animal; he is fighting because he is not an animal; he is fighting long after any animal would have fled.” He sees the pacifists as doing nothing but giving aid and comfort to the enemy. He appeals to a universal standard of right and wrong with real villains and real heroes. There is a difference between St. George and the Dragon. And anyone who cannot see that is “much too impartial to be just.” He wants Germany to be punished for its crimes, but more importantly to repent for its sins. He wants victory in the war, but more important than conquest is conversion: “Conquest may produce bitterness, but conversion produces no bitterness. It can produce nothing but gratitude, if it is conversion at all. It may seem a paradox that men should hate you for dethroning their King, but thank you for dethroning their God; but they will thank you—if he is really dethroned.”

One of the worst things of this war, says Chesterton, is not the horror it provokes but the horror it does not provoke:

The very fact that we now take such tales comparatively calmly marks the crushing weight of that degradation of war which the Prussians have heaped more and more heavily on the world. They have lowered the standard even of police news; and blunted the senses, even the sense of the sensational. They have made blood as cheap as mud, and almost as colourless. Had they prevailed, they would have battered us into their own shapeless shape; even as it is the repeated blows almost blind us to their own brutality. And this is, perhaps, the deepest of all reasons for disarming them—that they drag us down morally as well as materially. In fighting them we fight things more justly to be hated than mere devils; we fight shameful possibilities, and the brutes we might ourselves become.

 

This is sometimes tedious reading, but there are many rewards as well. However, some might wonder why Chesterton keeps writing about the war even after the war is over. There are two reasons. First, Chesterton does not think the war is over. The end of the fighting is not peace. The peace-settlements are not peace. The Prussian philosophy has not been defeated. He warns that “at the first chance Prussia, at the head of all her slaves, would return to the charge.” That is precisely what happened. Chesterton explains the future better than historians explain the past.

Secondly, there is one episode in the war that he does not mention in these columns, but it explains in part his “intolerance for the tale ending wrong.” His brother Cecil died in a French military hospital just days after the war ended.

There is another history-as-it-happened lesson in these pages. And equally prophetic. Consider this apparently universal observation from Chesterton:

It is obvious that a politician often passes the first half of his life in explaining that he can do something, and the second half of it in explaining that he cannot. When he is in opposition he is an expert on the means to some end; and when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it. In short, when he is impotent he proves to us that the thing is easy; and when he is omnipotent he proves that it is impossible.

But he is referring to one politician in particular. Who? None other than Lenin. Chesterton is watching the early unfolding of the Soviet Union in the wake of the Bolshevist Revolution, and one of the first things he notices is how quickly the Communists are compromising on their Communist ideals. What he predicts will happen is the growth of a rigid bureaucracy. Guess what happened.

This volume begins with lots of attention on the Prussians. It ends with attention on the Russians. The upheaval of civilization in the 20th century is well underway, as we will move from international crisis to international crisis. If crises were more local they would be more manageable. But no one seems to have thought of that. Well, one person did.

Volume 31 of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton can be purchased here.