the key gets swallowed: chesterton and WWI

by Zach Kincaid
Chesterton is chiefly a journalist; he takes up and discusses the points of the day, dipping his brush in both “earthquake and eclipse,” he says, and even into war.

During the years 1914 to 1918 (minus a few months due to illness), Chesterton spends nearly every one of his weekly columns discussing the progression and problems of The Great War, a war that will name J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as young combatants and one that will ultimately take the life of Chesterton’s brother, Cecil.

Throughout the conflict, Chesterton tows the party line by emphasizing Britain’s rectitude against Prussia’s peccancy, but he diverges in both the cause and effect of the war, as we’ll see. He labels the war as religious, a central point of his antithesis. I want to look at this idea by reflecting on Chesterton’s necessity to fight, the failure of Christianity, and a deep-seated, ill-fated reliance on modern progress.

I want to first summarize the years that precede World War I to help establish some context.

As you may know, the nineteenth century is bookended by revolutions: the French on one end and the Bolshevik on the other. In the years between, Europe tries to reorder herself as both modern and progressive, in want of less oligarchy and despotism, and, instead, more open, shared, and democratic approaches. There is great hope that enlightenment ideas will swell up and create allies out of bitter enemies.

It doesn’t work.

The Concert of Europe breaks down. The idea of harmonious friendship and blurred borders doesn’t squelch either nationalism nor tyranny; they creep back in. And with the unification of Germany with Prussia in 1871, “empire” attaches itself to "German" and the engine of World War I churns closer. The British soon realize the threat of a united Germany, and the rumors of war become feared maneuvers toward it.

In late June 1914, a new shot rings out ‘round the world and hits Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This, along with the invasion of Belgium, sparks quick turns of events as Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary pick through Europe and declare war on Serbia, Russia, France, and Britain. By August the declaration is mutual.

At best, war peculiarly fits within modernity. It bates more than a misunderstanding, "which social intercourse and explanation" can set right. When war breaks, it must be fought and not simply reasoned away. Moderns like novelist H.G. Wells support the first world war only because it’s “the war to end wars,” a phrase Wells coins to register the necessity of the conflict only, “if it puts an end to all the horror and barbarism and retrogression of war for ever,” he says. Other Fabians, including playwright George Bernard Shaw, could not subscribe to it at all. “Let us have no more nonsense about the Prussian Wolf and the British Lamb, the Prussian Machiavelli and the English Evangelist,” he says. “We cannot shout for years that we are boys of the bulldog breed and then suddenly pose as gazelles.” After a series of articles against the war, the severity of Shaw’s attacks produces suspicion of a possible treason charge, though it never materializes.

In September 1914, G. K. Chesterton gathers with 52 other writers summoned to the newly established War Propaganda Bureau in London. Chesterton’s old friend, Charles Masterman (to whom he dedicates What’s Wrong with the World in 1908) is head of the agency. Masterman secretly recruits authors G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Dolye, Galsworthy, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells and others to write pamphlets and books in defense of Britain. The goal is to, “support the cause of the Allies with all their strength, with a full conviction of its righteousness, and with a deep sense of vital import to the future of the world,” the declaration reads. Chesterton writes one piece that the bureau publishes titled, "The Barbarism in Berlin."

That said, Chesterton is not uncritical of Britain. For example, he hammers against the Second Boer War, where the British forcefully take South Africa (1902). And, the Marconi incident of 1912 catches the highest ranks of British Parliament in an insider trading scheme. Journalist Cecil Chesterton breaks the story at the paper where his brother (G.K.C.) works as an editor. Cecil is found libel in the affair and forced to pay a hefty fine, a bitter note of injustice for the Chestertons.

Chesterton agrees with the bureau authors, including Kipling and Wells (of whom he points out as "heretics" in 1905 for their hope in modern progress). He vividly thinks the war needs to be fought because the British brawl over what’s behind them which is home, and the Germans fight only for what’s ahead of them, namely empire building. He quickly rises to an offensive post, not to assist in propaganda wholesale, or find a way to “work at disarmament and peace throughout the world,” as Wells says, but rather because, "our work with the Prussians is not so much a pulling down of thrones as a casting out of devils; not only out of the land, but out of the enemy," Chesterton says.

He holds entrenched ideas that spread the gamut of the war years. He believes, for example, that pacifists are like the lunatics who think they are a chicken, that Germany is barbarically self-absorbed, that pessimism and optimism are mere banter, that the teutonic connection of Prussia and England holds no sway, that the best chance for peace is to respect borders, and, on a lighter note, that Germany ought not to “ram sauerkraut down everybody’s throat with a bayonet,” as he puts it. These conclusions, including the sauerkraut, are not out of the mainstream.

Chesterton is contrary to most of his peers in the idea of “casting out devils.” It drives him to name World War I as a religious war for the threats are not from munitions, but from the philosophies that drone at the war’s core. “It is necessary to be ruthless,” he says, “because we must reach the centre of the machine in order to break the spring - or perhaps the spell.” The spell is cast by a raging skepticism intwined with an equally enraged pride. It produces a meeting ground where, “there is no God, or no God who is concerned with men any more than with mites in cheese.” And World War I, with its hunt for tyranny, is an outgrowth of such dirged land.

War by definition demands taking action on a given side; one must draw a line (especially when it’s declared against you). Chesterton loves both sword and the chivalry that attaches to it - something at once unnatural and noble. In his mind, chivalry is tied up with Christianity, at least since the Crusades, a time which he applauds. Chesterton writes What Wrong with the World a few years before the war. In it he says, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” It’s a frequently used quote (perhaps you’ve heard it), but its context is less discussed. Chesterton is darting through European history and explains that the Prussians were not Christian until close in to the Reformation, hardly giving them time to decide to be Catholics in any genuine sense before becoming Protestants. “This explains a great deal of their subsequent conduct,” he says. Though exaggerated and not diligently measured out, Chesterton does point to a self-consciousness and “insufficiency” that Germany fills up with “self-sufficiency.” By the start of the war, the helmet of the German soldier is melded to his head, he says. If the objective is to kill the tyranny and not the tyrant, it will be a, “fine and delicate piece of marksmanship to shoot off his helmet without shooting off his head.” War is necessary then because Germany has made a habit of it and think they are the “natural masters of mankind.”

The German, then, is an enemy of the human race and a cancer to the whole of Europe. Chesterton directly associates modern progress - its supermen and belittled faith - with the German cause, making it a threat to Christianity and England herself, who is heading down the same road, in “the van of progress...falling over the precipice.”

Dramatist John Galsworthy, a fellow member of the Propaganda Bureau, says, “When this war is over and reason resumes its sway, our dogmas will be found to have scored through forever.” Galsworthy concludes that the war will kill mystic Christianity, as he defines the contemporary orthodoxy, no longer having a God that saves and boastfully sends one off to war. Rather, it will be a divine element closer to the hip - “the God within the human soul.”

Galsworthy affirms this path, and Chesterton fears it. And, he argues that, “if Christianity needs to be new it does not need to be Christian.”

Did the war begin because of an inflation of Christianity as Galsworthy suggests or due to its deflation? Chesterton believes it’s the breakdown of Christianity that starts with university sages who turn the Gospel’s good news into gossip, and the “ordinary modesty of Christian men” exchanged for “modern immoralism.” All the while, “war tried to be explained away so to sweep it into the more intelligent talk inside zoological gardens.” To these enlightened folk, “war was an anachronism like a tournament or a gladiator,” Chesterton says.

If the failure of Christianity perpetrated the war, then the call to arms is for its revival, or at the least, its survival. The war is certainly about physical boundaries being crossed and claimed, but its shadowy side sees a modern spirit trespassing into sacred spaces. Chesterton calls the Germans, barbarians, because they believe too highly in themselves, “letting go of sanity without really reaching subtlety.” The Germans might wear a cross, he says, but it doesn’t represent the same God who provides a window into the soul, to see a person’s “many relapses and self-contradictions.” Napoleon couldn’t see his flared-up success falling into a deep abyss, and the same is true of Germany. “They have built a palace of marble and are waiting for the superman from the other end of nowhere,” Chesterton says, “but nowhere has no end, and tomorrow never comes and the superman will never be born. Nothing comes out of nothing.”

By the close of the war, Chesterton arguably whittles away his sharp tone against Germany. Yet, there is no naivety that militarily they will rise again. Chesterton is clear that if they draw their sword, Europe will wear her shield. He turns Wells’s war-to-end-war into the “peace to end peace,” in part due to the unleashing of modern warfare. “It’s merciless and mechanical,” Chesterton says. “It uses or destroys man and nature for its own purpose.” And if the hearts of stone of both the Central and Allied Powers are not given over to hearts of flesh, as the Psalmist might say, then war begets war, not peace. Chesterton puts it this way: “Wars more and more horrible [will] follow the failure to vindicate and restore Christian equity and chivalry in this one.” But, if German souls are saved and converted, the war “will leave no wound.”

Unfortunately, the war carries deep wounds. In fact, it opens lasting infections as nineteenth century philosophy is spilled out from thought and into practice. The anarchy that laid siege to Europe stops for a period of time; the battlefields return to just being fields and trenches are once again carved out for rainfall and not falling soldiers. But Chesterton argues that anarchy is settling in, not moving out, because society cannot recover normalcy again. In 1922, Chesterton releases a collection of articles titled “Eugenics and Other Evils.” In it he recounts the fairy tale of a sailor who has a magic machine that can grind anything he wants by saying a magic word. To stop the grinding, he only needs to say a different word of magic. While sailing one day, he says the first word and the machine begins grinding his salt. But, neglecting to remember the word to stop it, the machine eats up the whole ship, miserably sinking it. The machine falls into the sea and begins grinding the ocean floor. It still grinds it today, an explanation of the water’s bitter saltiness.

It’s worse. According to Chesterton, society has not only forgotten the magic word, it has robbed all words of any meaning. He equates the vast quantity of dead soldiers to the choke of dead words in the “modern mental progress.” They are, “dead in the sense that they have no life in them, even in the minds of those who use them.” After the war, Chesterton identifies this loss of vocabulary with atheism introducing a certain materialism into everyday speech that kills out the soul. “The atheist style in letters always avoids talking of love or lust, which are things alive,” he says, “and calls marriage or concubinage ‘the relation of the sexes’; as if a man and a woman were two wooden objects standing in a certain angle and attitude to each other, like a table and a chair.” Dead language produces dead action and because morality is determined on both word and deed, atheism is grafted to anarchy.

World War I brought the theology and rhetoric of enlightened Europe to a point of “tip.” The modern spirit suggests a trajectory away from offensive mischief like war and hatred and toward a particular unity and false utopia, where opinion is dulled for the “greater good.” The Christian spirit casts out such hope in humankind and prophesies that an retreat from the divine and into the cleavage of self-reliance will end far away from anything peaceful.

Chesterton’s thoughts on the war are relevant today since we are both inheritors of modernity and, at times, meddlers (or at least sympathizers) to its aspirations. Even more, if modernity springs toward postmodernity, there is not even a central set of ideals, but one for your world as opposed to my world as opposed to the world of the person sitting next to you. In the end, Chesterton says the world is a boomerang. It takes liberation to the point of violation, success to the point of excess. If you travel far enough West, you'll wind up in the East. In the end, the boundaries between right and wrong are poisoned and independence becomes king. World War I is a great teacher of such abuses and Chesterton is a prophetic voice into causes and effects that help shape the war into a religious conflict. He realizes there is something more systemic then simply buying into the “Yellow Press,” as Chesterton names them, who write up “the blues merely to create a more lively colour scheme.” It is our call to look past the narrative of today and propose a story line in keeping with the meta-narrative of humanity, the thing properly called Christendom - thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

In a somewhat sarcastic confession, Chesterton speaks for Britain and acknowledges to Germany that his country has not served as much of an example. Yet, the worst of Britain, he notes, is in her mimicking of Germany, “imitating something of their spiritual pride, in failing in self-criticism, and abounding in self praise.” It may be a small “patch of evil” now, but if ignored it will grow.

Chesterton dies in 1936. A few years after his death, Catholic theologian F. J. Sheed compiled a book of Chesterton’s essays and titled it, The End of the Armistice. His introduction makes note that between 1914 and 1936, Chesterton’s mind was dominated by war: the one which ended in the forced peace of 1918, and the build up of the next one that would start in 1939. And Chesterton predicted how Germany would rise again - conquering Poland with Russia at her side. It would be an outcome due to a core bankruptcy - a “spiritual zero” - of Christendom once again. That small “patch of evil” grows to reek havoc on humanity. So, the question for us is related to the state of our souls, and, as Chesterton says of the Germans, perhaps we cannot find the key to open up necessary changes within us because we have swallowed it.

For accompanying notes, please email Zach Kincaid.
Presented at the C.S. Lewis conference at Calvin College, March 2009.