Christopher Hitchens' last piece of journalism was a all-out attack on another great journalist, G.K. Chesterton. He came off second best.
It is a cliché of pop psychology that we are least able to tolerate people who remind us of our own selves. There’s only room for one Life Of The Party and we feel a twinge of antagonism toward anyone whose excellence threatens to outshine our own. I was reminded of this when I read Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published review of a biography of the great British journalist G.K. Chesterton. It certainly was a curious valediction. As an obituary for Hitchens described:
“Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk.”
Two British journalists, each with a cult following, separated in death by 75 years and a seemingly impassable intellectual divide. One broadly forgotten by the culture but remembered with easy devotion and treasured by his fans, the other widely lauded, praised for his genius, but with a legacy yet to be determined.
May 29th was Chesterton’s birthday. I completely missed it, thereby proving that in the ranks of Chesterton fanatics, I am trudging along right at the back. But there I at least have the honour of being a rear guard. And in this capacity I feel compelled to respond to one deceased British journalist’s attack upon another.
Not that Chesterton needs defending. Of those introduced to GKC’s works, a minority is unimpressed. That’s fine. But few have the audacity to draw Chesterton down to their level, to examine the prodigy through their own cloudy lens, and to declare the result deficient. Chesterton fans will not be surprised: Hitchens showed as little appreciation for GKC’s thought as one might expect from a man steeped in Marxist, atheistic and hedonistic currents.
Any attempt to defend GKC is swiftly overtaken by the compelling desire to delve more deeply into his prose. A good defence becomes a better offence, and we find a host of loyal bloggers cheerfully demonstrating to the ghost of Hitchens passed that his dismissal of GKC as “deeply unserious and frivolous” is old hat. If Chesterton is not remembered widely, many of his critics are not remembered at all. A “Mr. McCabe” gave voice 106 years before Hitchens to the charge that Chesterton was a man of cheap paradox and frivolity:
“But how a serious social student can think of curing the thoughtlessness of our generation by strained paradoxes; of giving people a sane grasp of social problems by literary sleight-of-hand; of settling important questions by a reckless shower of rocket-metaphors and inaccurate `facts,' and the substitution of imagination for judgment, I cannot see."
Back in 1905 Chesterton rebutted both McCabe and Hitchens:
“Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.”
In another volume he apologised for the seriousness of his writings:
“Their chief vice is that so many of them are very serious; because I had no time to make them flippant. It is so easy to be solemn; it is so hard to be frivolous.”
The Chesterton fan gets it. He gets that his hero is not merely heaping frivolity on frivolity, making light of his opponents’ accusations. Every one of his lines points toward a single inexhaustible understanding of the truth. The truth is a medicine that transforms us. Nothing could be more serious than such a resolute search, and that is why the truth shines through Chesterton’s work.
“The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that…
"The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.”
Was GKC “sinister?
But Hitchens’ article was not simply a doomed repetition of tattered criticisms. He may be the first person to describe G.K. Chesterton as ‘sinister’, and he further condemned Chesterton’s work as a “minor but still important failure to meet a distinct moral challenge,” the rise of Nazism. In the context of “the Hitler-Vatican Concordat” he opined that “Harsher but correct would be the verdict that his [Chesterton’s] Catholicism made him morally frivolous about Hitlerism.”
Of Hitler, Chesterton had comparatively little to say. Is this surprising? Perhaps not, considering that GKC died in June 1936, less than four years after Hitler became Chancellor, and less than two years after the establishment of his dictatorship. To put this in context, Winston Churchill began his vocal opposition to German rearmament in 1932.
As early as 1933 Chesterton foresaw war with Germany:
“We are already drifting horribly near to a New War, which will probably start on the Polish Border. The Young Men have had nineteen years in which to learn how to avoid it. I wonder whether they do know much more about how to avoid it than the despised and drivelling Old Men of 1914.
“How many of the Young Men, for instance, have made the smallest attempt to understand Poland? How many would have anything to say to Hitler, to dissuade him from setting all Christendom aflame by a raid on Poland? Or have the Young Men been thinking of nothing since 1914 except the senile depravity of the Old Men of that date?”
He condemned the violence of Hitler’s regime as early as 1934:
“If we really wish to make vivid the horrors of destruction and mere disciplined murder, we must see them more simply as attacks on the hearth and the human family; and feel about Hitler as men felt about Herod.”
And by 1935 he was waxing eloquent in typical Chesterton style on the precise evils of the Nazi regime:
“Hitler's way of defending the independence of the family is to make every family dependent on him and his semi-Socialist State; and to preserve the authority of parents by authoritatively telling all the parents what to do… In other words, he appears to interfere with family life more even than the Bolshevists do; and to do it in the name of the sacredness of the family.”
He even provided, ahead of schedule, a response to Hitchens’ invocation of the Reichskonkordat:
“It will be noted that the Church generally had a Concordat with her enemies rather than her friends. There was a dispute with Napoleon and a Concordat with Napoleon: a dispute with Mussolini and a Concordat with Mussolini; a dispute with Hitler and a Concordat with Hitler.”
But there is no need to apologise for Chesterton. Hitchens got it completely wrong. Nazism was not, for someone of Chesterton’s era, a “distinct moral challenge”. It was an extension of an earlier ‘moral challenge’: Prussia.
We have the advantage of being able to judge our ancestors. But hindsight can sometimes hide as much as it reveals. For although we now regard Nazism, quite rightly, as being close to the epitome of human evil, the evils of Imperial Germany have faded. Yet nearly everything Chesterton had to say in precise and scathing criticism of Prussia, may be applied with equal vigour to its Nazi progeny. GKC was against Nazism before it even existed.
Historians sometimes describe the two World Wars as a single war with a half-time break. Chesterton drew the link back further to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. He analysed the ideology of the Prussian state and distilled its errors into three main faults:
“A failure in honour which almost amounts to a failure in memory: an egomania that is honestly blind to the fact that the other party is an ego; and, above all, an actual itch for tyranny and interference, the devil which everywhere torments the idle and the proud.”
To Prussia Chesterton attributed the Realpolitik that manifested itself in the “militant hostility to certain necessary human ideas [such as] the vow or the contract, which Prussian intellectualism would destroy.” Decrying this ‘failure of honour’ might seem naïve to a modern audience, for whom Realpolitik is really just politics. But Germany instantiated Realpolitik with its invasion of Belgium in World War One in contravention of the Treaty of London, which had guaranteed Belgian neutrality. Indeed, the Prussians were so antagonistic to their treaty obligations that the German Chancellor wondered why Britain would go to war over a "mere scrap of paper".
In such an historical context it is even more surprising that experienced statesmen put their trust in Hitler and a similar agreement made in Munich in 1938, with Hitler happily agreeing to go no further than Czechoslovakia. Chesterton’s Prussian analysis is equally pertinent in both cases:
“The Prussians had made a new discovery in international politics: that it may often be convenient to make a promise; and yet curiously inconvenient to keep it. […]That is the importance of the German Chancellor's phrase. He did not allege some special excuse in the case of Belgium, which might make it seem an exception that proved the rule. He distinctly argued, as on a principle applicable to other cases, that victory was a necessity and honour was a scrap of paper.”
Think of Nazi Germany as simply an extension of Prussia and Chesterton’s analysis approaches clairvoyance. On the topic of Prussian egomania, Chesterton wrote that:
“it is the point about the Prussian that with him nothing is mutual. The definition of the true savage does not concern itself even with how much more he hurts strangers or captives than do the other tribes of men. The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him. This extraordinary inequality in the mind is in every act and word that comes from Berlin.”
To demonstrate this egomania, Chesterton drew on a few unusual examples. He pointed to a phenomenon, in which men had – as a variation on the theme of duelling for honour – invented “the one-sided duel.”
“I mean the idea that there is some sort of dignity in drawing the sword upon a man who has not got a sword; a waiter, or a shop assistant, or even a schoolboy. One of the officers of the Kaiser in the affair at Saberne was found industriously hacking at a cripple. In all these matters I would avoid sentiment. We must not lose our tempers at the mere cruelty of the thing; but pursue the strict psychological distinction. Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things; any more than with poisoning or picking pockets. No French, English, Italian or American gentleman would think he had in some way cleared his own character by sticking his sabre through some ridiculous greengrocer who had nothing in his hand but a cucumber. It would seem as if the word which is translated from the German as ‘honour,’ must really mean something quite different in German. It seems to mean something more like what we should call ‘prestige’."
What matters is not so much the examples, but Chesterton’s diagnosis of the “political pessimism and cynicism” of the Prussian state. He observed that Prussians really were men of “blood and iron” with all the disadvantages that incurred. The progressive scientific regime of Prussia was as cold and dead as iron.
“In other words, the Prussian Empire, with all its perfections and efficiencies, has one notable defect—that it is a dead thing. It does not draw its life from any primary human religion or poetry; it does not grow again from within. And being a dead thing, it suffers also from having no nerves to give warning or reaction; it reads no danger signals; it has no premonitions; about its own spiritual doom its sentinels are deaf and all its spies are blind.”
Prussia was once considered a leader in progressive fields such as eugenics and the efficient organisation of the state. The First World War dampened that admiration:
“Scientific officialism and organization in the State which had specialized in them, had gone to war with the older culture of Christendom... As the war advanced from poison gas to piracy against neutrals, it grew more and more plain that the scientifically organized State was not increasing in popularity. Whatever happened, no Englishmen would ever again go nosing round the stinks of that low laboratory. So I thought all I had written irrelevant, and put it out of my mind.”
But the popularity of these ideas resurfaced in the inter-war years:
“I am greatly grieved to say that it is not irrelevant. It has gradually grown apparent, to my astounded gaze, that the ruling classes in England are still proceeding on the assumption that Prussia is a pattern for the whole world.”
As strange as it might seem to us, Chesterton was relentless in his criticism. He referred unashamedly to Prussian principles and national character as barbarism. He said comparatively little about Hitler, because he had said so much about Prussia. He saw the nature of the evil in his own day with a clarity and prescience that modern writers should envy.
Chesterton’s friend and colleague Hillaire Belloc once wrote a cutting poem called ‘Lines to a Don’, defending GKC against the criticisms of a forgotten academic: “Remote and ineffectual Don / That dared attack my Chesterton.” Modern fans of the great British journalist are no less loyal or protective of “the Apostle of Common Sense”. But it is the worth of his work that inspires this love and loyalty to the man despite the human failings from which none of us are immune. As for Hitchens, a true fan will smile or shrug his shoulders or feel a touch of pity for a critic who totally missed the point.
Take this as a reminder to go and read some more.
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.