Home » Antisemitism » “Ludicrous, surreal” defence of G. K. Chesterton

“Ludicrous, surreal” defence of G. K. Chesterton

A few days ago, Michael Coren reported a so-called “ludicrous, surreal episode” [1]. The episode in question was a Twitter discussion about a claim made in one of his books that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism. From the language employed, one might imagine a particularly bitter exchange, for Coren uses phrases such as the following to describe – and presumably to deter – those who dare to criticise Chesterton: “monomania, wrapped in the last acceptable prejudice of anti-Catholicism,” “the fundamentalism of those so committed to damaging Chesterton’s reputation,” and “the most extreme, bizarre lengths to have their way” [1]. The ad hominem tactic of dismissing out of hand the critics of Chesterton as “anti-Catholic” is regrettable and unfounded (especially as the discussion in question focused on Chesterton and the Wiener Library and not Chesterton’s Catholicism). Speaking for myself, I harbour no hostility for Catholics or Catholicism, and my concerns about Chesterton end with his hostile stereotypes and caricatures (about Jews and other “Others”). If I harbour a prejudice it is – to use a phrase once used by Chesterton to describe the sentiments of Americans – “a prejudice against Anti-Semitism; a prejudice of Anti-Anti-Semitism” (though unlike Chesterton, I do not regard anti-antisemitism” as a prejudice or bad thing) [2].

But back to the article. Coren points out that he devoted a chapter to the issue of Chesterton’s discourse about Jews, and that only “one brief passage concerned London’s Wiener Library, a small institution devoted to the study of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.” He stated that: “I spent a morning there in 1985 and discussed my research with a librarian. He told me that Chesterton was never seriously anti-Semitic. ‘He was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.’” Coren then expresses his indignation that “a self-published writer in Britain” – a reference to my recent examination of Chesterton’s stereotyping in Chesterton’s Jews – “demanded a name, proof, a reference.” “Sorry, mate: no name, no proof, and it was, as I say, a quarter of a century ago,” Coren replies. [1]

If Coren had originally stated merely that he had discussed his research with “a librarian” and that this librarian had defended Chesterton, then this would indeed be a relative non-issue (though a source citation would still have been useful). However, in the New Statesman in 1986 he attributed the defence of Chesterton to “the Wiener Institute” [3]. And in his biography of Chesterton the statement in defence of Chesterton is attributed to “the Wiener Library” [4]. There is of course a world of difference between the personal sentiment of an unnamed librarian and the position of the Wiener Library. Interestingly, he now describes the Wiener Library as “a small institution,” whereas back in 1986 when he was citing the Wiener Library in defence of Chesterton, he described the Wiener Library as “the best monitors of anti-semitism in Britain” [3].

The real issue is not Coren’s book per se – as he acknowledges, there have been plenty of subsequent biographies of Chesterton, and “some of them, frankly, rather better” than his [1]. However, subsequent authors have taken Coren’s earlier claim that the Wiener Library defended Chesterton at face value, and have repeated it in books, articles and web sites. As Ben Barkow, the current director of the Wiener Library states, “numerous websites cite a made-up quotation by the Library stating that Chesterton was not antisemitic. Our efforts to have these false attributions removed have largely failed” [5]. As a result, the myth that the Wiener Library defends Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism has acquired currency, when according to Coren’s latest article, he only discussed his research with an unnamed librarian he once met there [1] [6].

Turning to Coren’s other main point, he observes that Chesterton was “an early anti-Nazi” [1]. Here Coren is on safer – which is not to say solid – ground, and many of Chesterton’s defenders make the same point. Chesterton was anti-Nazi and it would be unfair to equate his particular brand of anti-Jewish discourse with Nazi antisemitism. However, if we are going to be fair and balanced, we should also point out that often in the very same articles in which Chesterton criticised Nazi antisemitism, he also repeated the stereotypes and caricatures of Jews that he had maintained before the 1930s. His defence of Jews was therefore not without its equivocation. Let’s look at a few examples. In March 1933, he criticised Hitler’s antisemitism, but then repeated his old claim that the English were never allowed to hear that “Dreyfus had got leave to go to Italy and used it to go to Germany; or that he was seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres” [7]. In July 1933, he criticised “Hitlerism”, but then observed that it was “only just to Hitler” to point out that the Jews “have been too powerful in Germany.” He stated that “it is but just to Hitlerism to say that the Jews did infect Germany with a good many things less harmless than the lyrics of Heine or the melodies of Mendelssohn. It is true that many Jews toiled at that obscure conspiracy against Christendom, which some of them can never abandon; and sometimes it was marked not be obscurity but obscenity. It is true that they were financiers, or in other words usurers; it is true that they fattened on the worst forms of Capitalism; and it is inevitable that, on losing these advantages of Capitalism, they naturally took refuge in its other form, which is Communism” [8]. In November 1934, he criticised “the Hitlerites”, but then stated that: “There is a Jewish problem; there is certainly a Jewish culture; and I am inclined to think that it really was too prevalent in Germany. For here we have the Hitlerites themselves, in plain words, saying they are a Chosen Race. Where could they have got that notion? Where could they even have got that phrase, except from the Jews?” [9].  (For more on Chesterton’s discourse about Hitler and the Jews, see G. K. Chesterton discussing Hitler and the Jews, 1933-1936).

Coren concludes that he would rather be in the “valley with Gilbert than the peak with his critics,” because according to Chesterton it is possible to see “only small things from the peak” [1]. If viewing Chesterton’s discourse from the valley means missing such “small” details as these, then I am happy to occupy “the peak with his critics.”


Notes for “Ludicrous, surreal” defence of G. K. Chesterton

1. Michael Coren, “‘Ludicrous, surreal episode’ against G. K. Chesterton returns,” The B.C. Catholic, 13 September 2013, http://bcc.rcav.org/opinion-and-editorial/3069-canonization-attempt-resurrects-anti-semitic-claim (downloaded 17 September 2013).

2. G. K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922), 140-142.

3. Michael Coren, “Just bad friends,” review of G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, by Michael Ffinch, New Statesman, 8 August 1986, 30.

4. Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), 209-210.

5. Ben Barkow, “Director’s Letter,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 2.

6. For an examination of this resilient myth, see Simon Mayers, “The resilient myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism,” 1 September 2013, https://simonmayers.com/2013/09/01/the-resilient-myth-that-the-wiener-library-defends-g-k-chesterton-from-the-charge-of-antisemitism/ (downloaded 17 September 2013).

7. G. K. Chesterton, “The Horse and the Hedge,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 30 March 1933, 55.

8. G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311-312.

9. G. K. Chesterton, “A Queer Choice,” Straws in the Wind, G.K.’s Weekly, 29 November 1934, 207.

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