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Chesterton’s Jews: An Update

There have been some interesting developments in the months and years since Chesterton’s Jews was first published (in August 2013). For example, in chapter five of Chesterton’s Jews, I introduced the myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of “antisemitism,” noting that the resilience of the myth, which received its genesis in the late 1980s, is demonstrated by the fact that there are still numerous internet pages that refer to it. However, since the book was published, the myth has been at least partially uprooted (link for more information). Michael Coren had originally stated that it was the “Wiener Institute, the best monitors of anti-semitism in Britain,” that defended Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism (Michael Coren, “Just bad friends,” New Statesman, 8 August 1986, 30). Three years later, it was “the Wiener Library, the archives of anti-Semitism and Holocaust history in London,” that regarded Chesterton as “a friend, not an enemy” (Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, 1989, 209-210). The implication was that the institution itself defended and regarded Chesterton as a friend. However, in September 2013, Coren clarified that it was not the institution, but rather just one of the many librarians (whose name he does not remember) that have worked there over the years. According to Oliver Kamm in the Jewish Chronicle (online edition, 10 October 2013; print edition, 11 October 2013), when he asked Coren about this, he quickly replied, “regretting that he could not recall the name of the librarian with whom he spoke and that his records from this pre-digital age had not all travelled with him to his current home in Canada.”

A more significant development relates to the movement for the canonisation of Chesterton. When Chesterton’s Jews was published, it was possible to discuss (in chapter six) how Chesterton had been represented as a saint by a number of his admirers, and how a movement that called for the canonisation of Chesterton was growing. If I had waited one more month before publication, I would have also been able to report that Peter Doyle, the bishop of the diocese of Northampton, had appointed a priest, Canon John Udris, to start an investigation into whether Chesterton’s Cause should be formally opened. If I had waited a few months, I would have been able to discuss how this had played out in various newspapers, such as the Catholic Herald (in which Francis Phillips suggested that Chesterton was a “genius,” a “prophet,” who should be canonised and made the patron saint of journalists), the Tablet (in which Richard Ingrams suggested that Chesterton’s writing evinced an “undeniable anti-Semitism,” and that he “shut his eyes to too many nasty things and a saint cannot do that”), and the Jewish Chronicle (in which Oliver Kamm suggested that Chesterton was a writer unfit to be a saint, and Geoffrey Alderman expressed amazement at the lengths that people will go to excuse the “antisemitism” of public figures such as Chesterton), to mention but a few. Since then, Canon Udris has given talks and interviews on Chesterton, suggesting that Chesterton was innocent of “anti-Semitism,” and should be beatified. For example, in an interview in the Catholic Herald (3 March 2014), it was reported that Canon Udris had stated that Chesterton said some “daft things,” such as that the Jews should wear distinctive dress to indicate they were outsiders. According to Udris, “you can understand why people make the assumption that he is anti-Semitic. But I would want to make the opposite case.” And in a talk delivered at Beaconsfield in 2014 (YouTube link), he stated that “the holiness of Chesterton is something that’s infectious.” It will certainly be interesting to see if the investigation initiated by the bishop of Northampton concludes with the Cause of Chesterton being formerly opened.

An Odd Construction of G. K. Chesterton’s “Philosemitism”

In his book on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “holiness” (an edited collection of essays by various contributors), William Oddie argues that Chesterton was not only a saint but also a “philosemite.” Whilst I have looked at some of Oddie’s arguments elsewhere, I thought it would be a good idea to bring them together and examine them afresh.

One of William Oddie’s arguments is that Chesterton could not have been an antisemite because on a number of occasions he defended Jews from antisemitism. According to Oddie, Chesterton felt protective feelings for Jews from his childhood onwards. He presented a diary entry, dated 5 January 1891, which stated that Chesterton felt so strongly about some vicious acts of cruelty to a Jewish girl in Russia that he was inclined to “knock some-body down”. He also quotes from letters by Chesterton’s alter-ego, Guy Crawford (under which name Chesterton published a series of letters). These were printed in the Debater, the magazine of the “Junior Debating Club,” in 1892. In these letters, Crawford discusses his plans to go to Russia to help “the Hebrews” suffering in pogroms. As William Oddie observed, the series of letters ends with “Guy Crawford” siding with a revolutionary mob in St. Petersburg, and leaping to the defence of a Jewish student. The student, who was killed in this fantastical account, was described by Crawford as “a champion of justice, like thousands who have fallen for it in the dark records of this dark land”. The Guy Crawford letters can be found in G. K. Chesterton [Guy Crawford, pseud.], “The Letters of Three Friends,” Debater III: no.13 (March 1892), 9-11; no.14 (May 1892), 27-29; no.17 (November 1892), 70-71. These examples probably provide a fair reflection of Chesterton’s late teenage attitudes (he was 16 when he wrote the diary entry, and 17-18 when he wrote the “Guy Crawford” letters). However, his childhood and young adult worldview, as with most people, changed as he developed. An example of his developing worldview can be seen in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, published in 1904, when Chesterton was about 30 years of age. William Oddie has himself noted this protean development of views in Chesterton’s life, noting that in this novel, Chesterton expressed “distaste for modernity and progress.” Oddie quite rightly points out that this distaste was “a recent volte-face.” See William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G.K. Chesterton,” in William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing,2010), 124-137 and William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 7-8, 80-81.

This was not however the only volte-face in Chesterton’s worldview and discourse. He also changed his views about the Jews, and his early protective feelings developed into something which at its best was ambiguous and ambivalent, and at its worst hostile, stereotyping and caricaturing. A relatively early, partial, and by his later standards mild manifestation of this volte-face can be found in his novel, Manalive (1912), which reflected his worldview no less than the letters of Guy Crawford. According to the narrator of the story, “wherever there is conflict, crises come in which any soul, personal or racial, unconsciously turns on the world the most hateful of its hundred faces.” In the case of Moses Gould, the Jew in the novel, it was “that smile of the Cynic Triumphant, which has been the tocsin for many a cruel riot in Russian villages or mediaeval towns”. The transition from innocent victim in Russia to cynic-triumphant was only a partial volte-face. The more complete volte-face would come later in the early 1920s, when Chesterton started to claim that the Jews were persecuting Russians. His narratives about the Jewish tyrant were intertwined with stereotypes about the Jewish Bolshevik. For example, in February 1921, Chesterton observed that there was once “a time when English poets and other publicists could always be inspired with instantaneous indignation about the persecuted Jews in Russia. We have heard less about them since we heard more about the persecuting Jews in Russia”. According to Chesterton, it was not necessary for all Jews to support Bolshevism for it to be a Jewish movement. He stated that “it is not necessary to have every man a Jew to make a thing a Jewish movement; it is at least clear that there are quite enough Jews to prevent it from being a Russian movement”. He made a similar point in August 1920: “There has arisen on the ruins of Russia a Jewish servile State, the strongest Jewish power hitherto known in history. We do not say, we should certainly deny, that every Jew is its friend; but we do say that no Jew is in the national sense its enemy”. The “servile State” was an allusion to Hilaire Belloc’s book, The Servile State (1912). According to Belloc, the servile state is a society in which the majority of individuals and families are forced and constrained by “positive law” to labour on behalf of a tight-knit minority of rich capitalist plutocrats or tyrannical Bolsheviks (i.e. the enslavement of “the proletariat”). Chesterton was implying that Russia had been transformed into such a servile State, run for the benefit of the Jews. See G.K. Chesterton, Manalive (London: Thomas Nelson, 1912), 289; G.K. Chesterton, “The Statue and the Irishman,” New Witness, 18 February 1921, 102; G.K. Chesterton, “The Beard of the Bolshevist,” New Witness, 14 January 1921, 22; G.K. Chesterton, “The Feud of the Foreigner,” New Witness, 20 August 1920, 309; Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (1912).

Oddie also points to Chesterton’s defence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus as further proof of Chesterton’s philosemitism. In 1899, when he was about 25 years of age, Chesterton did (as Oddie rightly notes) write a poem entitled “To a Certain Nation” as a reproach to France for the injustice done to Captain Dreyfus. However, what Oddie neglects to mention is that Chesterton soon reversed his opinion. This volte-face occurred around 1906, when Chesterton was about 32 years of age. In 1906, Chesterton added a note to the second edition of The Wild Knight which reveals that by 1906 he had started to change his position about where the greater injustice lay. The note stated that whilst “there may have been a fog of injustice in the French courts; I know that there was a fog of injustice in the English newspapers.” According to the note, he was unable to reach a “proper verdict on the individual,” which he largely attributed to the “acrid and irrational unanimity of the English Press.” Chesterton maintained this antipathy about Dreyfus and his defenders throughout his life. In letters to The Nation in 1911, Chesterton referred to the Jew “who is a traitor in France and a tyrant in England,” and stated that in “the case of Dreyfus,” he was quite certain that “the British public was systematically and despotically duped by some power – and I naturally wonder what power.” He argued in 1928 that Dreyfus may or may not have been innocent, but that the greater crime was not how he had been treated at trial but how the English newspapers buried the evidence against him. According to Chesterton, “the English newspapers incessantly repeated that there was no evidence against Captain Dreyfus. They then cut out of the reports the evidence that he had been seen in German uniform at the German manoeuvres; or that he had obtained a passport for Italy and then gone to Germany.” Chesterton stated that when he discovered this, “something broke inside my British serenity; and a page of print has never been the same to me again.” In another article (in 1927) Chesterton did defend a Jew, Oscar Slater, from the charge of murder, thereby seemingly showing that Chesterton was not ceaselessly antisemitic. However, seemingly unwilling to defend one Jew without sniping at another, he again repeated as part of this defence of Oscar Slater the accusation that the English newspapers left out “evidence that Dreyfus had appeared in German uniform at the German manoeuvres.” In another article, this time published in 1933, he criticised Hitler and Nazi antisemitism (something he did on a number of occasions as his defenders, including William Oddie, have pointed out), whilst yet again arguing that the English “were never told, for instance, 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.” As Julia Stapleton rightly noted in her book, Christianity, Patriotism, and Nationhood: The England of G. K. Chesterton (2009, 46), it seems that it never occurred to Chesterton to question whether there was any truth in the highly dubious allegations that Dreyfus was seen “in German uniform at the German manoeuvres,” or whether the claims “were suspect and thus beyond the realms of responsible journalism.” See G.K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight, 1st ed. (London: Grant Richards, 1900), 94-96; G.K. Chesterton, The Wild Knight, 2nd ed. (London: Brimley Johnson and Ince, 1906), viii; G.K. Chesterton to the Editor, The Nation: 18 March 1911 and 8 April 1911; G.K. Chesterton, “Dreyfus and Dead Illusions,” G.K.’s Weekly, 25 February 1928, 993; G.K. Chesterton, “In Defence of a Jew,”, G.K.’s Weekly, 27 August 1927, 575; G.K. Chesterton, “The Horse and the Hedge,” G.K.’s Weekly, 30 March 1933, 55.

As previously mentioned, William Oddie also points out (quite rightly) that Chesterton bitterly criticised the Nazis during the 1930s. He was in fact a staunch critic of Hitler and Nazi antisemitism. However, Chesterton considered his critiques of “Hitlerism” and Nazi antisemitism to be entirely consistent with his earlier stereotypes of the Jew and his proposed so-called solutions to the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Chesterton believed that Hitler was right to worry about the so-called Jewish Problem, but wrong in his approach to it. As far as Chesterton was concerned, the rise of Hitlerism clarified the urgency of solving the so-called Jewish Problem. Significantly, he not only continued to maintain his antisemitic stereotypes of the Jew from 1933 onwards, he incorporated them into the very articles in which he condemned and criticised Hitlerism. According to Chesterton in July 1933, “it is perfectly true that the Jews have been very powerful in Germany. It is only just to Hitler to say that they have been too powerful in Germany.” Chesterton argued that it will be very difficult for Hitler to persuade Germans to amputate the Jewish contributions to German culture, such as Heinrich Heine and Felix Mendelssohn. “But again,” he continued, “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.” Chesterton even seemed to believe in the idea of a Jewish conspiracy, for he went on to state that “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”. Chesterton repeated the stereotype of rich greedy Jews in other articles that were critical of Hitler. He condemned “Herr Hitler and his group” for “beat[ing] and bully[ing] poor Jews in concentration camps,” but then he stated that “what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses”. Chesterton repeated the stereotype of the pro-German Jew in his critique of Hitler. He asked, “was Hitler really so ignorant, that he did not know that the Jews were the prop of the Pro-German cause throughout the world?” Chesterton criticised Hitler, and then repeated his claim that there is a Jewish Problem. He explained 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?” See G.K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311; G.K. Chesterton, “On War Books,” G.K.’s Weekly, 10 October 1935, 28; G.K. Chesterton, “A Very Present Help,” G.K.’s Weekly, 4 May 1933, 135; G.K. Chesterton, “A Queer Choice,” G.K.’s Weekly, 29 November 1934, 207.

William Oddie also referred to Michael Coren’s biography of Chesterton which claimed, without any source citation to substantiate the claim, that Chesterton had been defended by the Wiener Library. According to Oddie, “Coren quotes the view of the Wiener Library, the archive of anti-semitism in London, that he was not ‘seriously anti-semitic’, though he ‘played along’ and therefore ‘has the public reputation of anti-semitism.’” However, that defence has subsequently been demolished, with the director of the Wiener Library rejecting the claim in the Wiener Library News. Ben Barkow, the director of the Wiener Library, reported in 2010 that “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.” The same issue of the Wiener Library News contained a short report (by the present author) on the widely cited “Wiener Library Defence.” Michael Coren has acknowledged that he does not know the name of the librarian that he spoke to. This would suggest that the reported views were the personal sentiments of one of the librarians or volunteers who have worked at the institute, rather than, as Oddie phrases it, “the view of the Wiener Library”. It is of course impossible to verify even this much without a name – and indeed, it may be reasonably asked why the librarian’s name was not collected and cited at the time by Coren if it was supposedly the official view of the Wiener Library. See William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G.K. Chesterton,” 130; Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who was G. K. Chesterton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), 209-210; Ben Barkow, “Director’s Letter,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 2; Simon Mayers, “G. K. Chesterton and the Wiener Library Defence,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 10; Oliver Kamm, “Chesterton defence that doesn’t stand up,” Jewish Chronicle, 10 October 2013 (link). For more on this, see my blog post:The Resilient Myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism.”

For those interested, my recent book, Chesterton’s Jews, contains a thorough examination of the antisemitic stereotypes and caricatures in the literature and journalism of G. K. Chesterton.

Ian Ker on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “Semitism”

Ian Ker’s biography of G. K. Chesterton, published in 2011, seems to be widely regarded as the most comprehensive study of Chesterton to date. It is therefore instructive to see how Ian Ker deals with the accusation that Chesterton was antisemitic. Employing Chesterton’s own words, Ker notes that Chesterton and his friends (i.e. Hilaire Belloc and the staff at the New Witness) were often rebuked for “so-called ‘Anti-Semitism’; but it was ‘always much more true to call it Zionism.’” And this would seem to be the main basis for Ker’s defence of Chesterton, the argument that he was not antisemitic because he sympathised with Zionism. Chesterton’s sympathy for Zionism soon waned, and by 1925 his editorials in G.K.’s Weekly were ambivalent if not deprecating towards Zionism (link for more on this). Putting aside the fact that Chesterton’s so-called Zionism largely evaporated in the mid-1920s, the very reasons given for his support of Zionism serve to further demonstrate Chesterton’s distorted views about Jews. Again defending Chesterton and his friends in Chesterton’s own words, Ian Ker argues that the substance of “their ‘heresy’” was “in saying that Jews are Jews; and as a logical consequence that they are not Russian or Roumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen.” Ker notes that Chesterton pointed out that his Zionism was based on “the theory that any abnormal qualities in the Jew”, such as being “traders rather than producers” and “cosmopolitans rather than patriots”, are “due to the abnormal position of the Jews.” The claims that “the Jew” has “abnormal qualities” (even if “the Jew” is patronisingly excused rather than blamed for having these abnormal qualities), and that he or she cannot really be English, French, German or Italian, and neither contributes nor feels patriotism for the countries within which he or she lives – views that I am confident Ian Ker does not share with Chesterton – are not just deprecating (so much for the Jews who fought and died for their countries during the First and Second World Wars), but also rooted in pervasive anti-Jewish myths and stereotypes. And yet Ker seems to agree with Chesterton that his “Zionism” was “Semitism” rather than “Anti-Semitism: “if that was ‘Anti-Semitism’, then Chesterton was an ‘Anti-Semite’ – but it would seem more rational to call it Semitism.” I cannot help wondering, if someone was to make similarly unacceptable and bigoted claims about Catholics – and indeed the prejudiced claim was often made in England during the 19th century that Catholics were different, dangerous and disloyal (English Jews and Catholics both having to fight for their emancipation during the 19th century) – and argue that English Catholics should be encouraged to depart England for a Catholic country, and that those who choose to remain should be required to wear distinctive clothing, would Ian Ker regard such prejudiced statements as “Anti-Catholic” or “Catholic”. And if he concluded that they were Anti-Catholic, why is he happy to regard Chesterton’s views as “Semitism” rather than “Anti-Semitism”? In my mind, prejudices, whether anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish (or anti- any other cultural group), are simply unacceptable. See Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 419-420.

In fairness, Ian Ker does acknowledge that the history of persecutions and pogroms in Europe “should have made Chesterton more cautious in what he said about the Jews.” However, Ker then argues that there were “mitigating” circumstances that should be taken into account. He suggests that Chesterton made these statements after his “beloved brother had died in a patriotic war soon after being found guilty in a libel case brought by a Jewish businessman who had effectively corrupted politicians in the Marconi scandal” and also after “international finance, in which Jews were very prominent, had played a not inconsiderable part in leaving Germany only partially weakened by the Treaty of Versailles.” According to Ker: “When, then, Chesterton demands that any Jew who wishes to occupy a political or social position … ‘must be dressed like an Arab’ to make it clear that he is a foreigner living in a foreign country, we need to bear those factors in mind.” Putting aside the dubious stereotype of the corrupt Jewish plutocrat, there are other flaws in these so-called “mitigating” circumstances. Firstly, Chesterton stated that it was not just particular Jews – or Jews seeking to “occupy a political or social position” as Ker suggests – that should be made to wear the robes of an Arab, but rather “every Jew must be dressed like an Arab”. Chesterton explained that: “If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land.” Secondly, Chesterton did not, as Ker suggests, wait until his brother’s death (in December 1918) or the Treaty of Versailles (signed in June 1919) to make these dubious claims. For example, he had already argued that “our Jews” should be required to wear the robes on an Arab in the pages of the New Witness in 1913. See Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 422-423. G. K. Chesterton, “What shall we do with our Jews?”, New Witness, 24 July 1913, 370; and G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 227.

Referring to Zionism, Chesterton stated that: “For if the advantage of the ideal to the Jews is to gain the promised land, the advantage to the Gentiles is to get rid of the Jewish problem, and I do not see why we should obtain all their advantage and none of our own. Therefore I would leave as few Jews as possible in other established nations”. Jews leaving Europe was, Chesterton suggested, simply the best way to get rid of the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Chesterton’s defenders would seem to believe that this demonstrates Chesterton’s warm friendly sentiments to Jews, but as Owen Dudley Edwards quite rightly concluded in the Chesterton Review: “to say that a man wishes you and all your people to live somewhere else, is not to say that he likes you. It does mean that he doesn’t want to murder you, but if you call someone an anti-Semite you are not necessarily calling him a Hitler, real or potential.” See G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, 1920), 248; and Owen Dudley Edwards, “Chesterton and Tribalism,” Chesterton Review VI, no.1 (1979-1980), 37.

Chesterton’s Jews

G. K. Chesterton was a journalist and prolific author of poems, novels, short stories, travel books and social criticism. Prior to the twentieth century, Chesterton expressed sympathy for Jews and hostility towards antisemitism. He was agitated by Russian pogroms and felt sympathy for Captain Dreyfus. However, early into the twentieth century, he developed an irrational fear about the presence of Jews in Christian society. He started to argue that it was the Jews who oppressed the Russians rather than the Russians who oppressed the Jews, and he suggested that Alfred Dreyfus was not as innocent as the English newspapers claimed (click link for more on Chesterton and the Dreyfus Affair). His caricatures of Jews were often that of grotesque creatures dressed up as English people. His fictional and his non-fictional works repeated antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish greed and usury, bolshevism, cowardice, disloyalty and secrecy.

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Many of Chesterton’s admirers fervently deny the presence of anti-Jewish hostility in his writings. Some of his defenders believe that Chesterton was an important figure within the Church, perhaps even a prophet or a saint. In fact, a growing number of people would like to see Chesterton canonised as a saint, and no doubt some are concerned that the accusation of antisemitism might prove an obstacle to such efforts. Since the publication of Chesterton’s Jews, the Bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle, has appointed Canon John Udris to conduct an initial fact-finding investigation into the possibility of starting a cause for the canonisation of Chesterton. According to a report in the Catholic Herald on 3 March 2014, one of the reasons that the bishop selected Canon Udris for this investigation was that he has a “personal devotion to Chesterton,” and could thus be expected to put some “energy” into it. According to the report, referring to Chesterton’s argument that the Jews should be made to wear distinctive clothing so that everyone will know that they are “outsiders” (i.e. foreigners), Canon Udris observed that “you can understand why people make the assumption that he is anti-Semitic. But I would want to make the opposite case.” (Link for more on this canonisation investigation).

G. K. Chesterton’s “Daft” Suggestion: “Every Jew must be dressed like an Arab”

According to a report in the Catholic Herald on 3 March 2014, Canon John Udris, who has been appointed to conduct an initial fact-finding investigation into the possibility of starting a Cause for the canonization of G. K. Chesterton, observed that the accusation of antisemitism was the main obstacle to the Cause. According to the report, Canon Udris observed that “Chesterton said some ‘daft things’, including a suggestion that Jewish people should wear distinctive dress to indicate they were outsiders.” He concluded that: “You can understand why people make the assumption that he is anti-Semitic. But I would want to make the opposite case.” Mark Greaves, “G K Chesterton ‘breaks mould of conventional holiness’, says Cause investigator,” Catholic Herald (online), 3 March 2014.

The most notable instance of this “daft” suggestion “quaint” but “quite serious” according to Chesterton, and by no means the most deprecating thing that Chesterton said about Jews (he also embraced antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as greedy, bolshevist and cowardly, and argued that Alfred Dreyfus had probably been guilty of spying) – can be found in The New Jerusalem (1920). Chesterton argued that the Jews in England should be allowed to occupy any occupation but with one important stipulation: “But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other. Be it enacted, by the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons in Parliament assembled, that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. It is not my point at present to dwell on the pleasing if flippant fancy of how much this would transform the political scene; of the dapper figure of Sir Herbert Samuel swathed as a Bedouin, or Sir Alfred Mond gaining a yet greater grandeur from the gorgeous and trailing robes of the East. If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land.” G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, [1920]), 227.

This was not the first time that Chesterton had suggested that Jews should be required to wear distinctive clothing. In 1913, seven years prior to The New Jerusalem, he had already harked back to the Middle Ages for his solution to the so-called Jewish Problem. He observed that in the Middle Ages it was felt that the Jews, “whether they were nice or nasty, whether they were impotent or omnipotent… were different.” He noted that this recognition was expressed by “a physical artistic act, giving them a definite dwelling place and a definite dress.” This was a clear allusion to the ghetto and the Jew hat. Chesterton however had different ideas about appropriate though equally distinctive clothing. The Jews, he argued, should be required to “wear Arab costume.” “By all means let [a Jew] be Lord Chief Justice; but let him not sit in wig and gown, but in turban and flowing robes.” He observed that the “modern mood” is such that “I must advance it as a joke,” but he regarded it as a very real issue. He concluded that “if the Jew were dressed differently we should know what he meant; and when we were all quite separate we should begin to understand each other.” Similarly, in 1914, he stated in his regular column in the Illustrated London News, that the Jews may one day come to realize that they risk trading the faith of Moses and Isaiah for that of the Golden Image and the Market Place, and they may “wish they were sitting like an Arab in a clean tent in a decent desert.” G. K. Chesterton, “What shall we do with our Jews?”, New Witness, 24 July 1913, 370; G. K. Chesterton, Our Notebook, Illustrated London News, 28 February 1914, 322.

G. K. Chesterton and the Stereotype of “the Jewish Bolshevik”

In a previous report I looked at the stereotype of the so-called greedy Jew in G. K. Chesterton’s fictional and journalistic discourse. In this report I will look at the stereotype of the “Jewish Bolshevik” in his discourse.

In his essay on G. K. Chesterton’s so-called “philosemitism,” William Oddie argues that Chesterton could not have been an antisemite because on a number of occasions he defended Jews from antisemitism [1]. William Oddie presented a diary entry, dated 5 January 1891, which stated that Chesterton felt so strongly about some vicious acts of cruelty to a Jewish girl in Russia that he was inclined to “knock some-body down”. He also quotes from letters by Chesterton’s alter-ego, Guy Crawford (under which name Chesterton published a series of letters). These were printed in the Debater, the magazine of the “Junior Debating Club,” in 1892. In these letters, Crawford discusses his plans to go to Russia to help “the Hebrews” suffering in pogroms. As William Oddie observed, the series of letters ends with “Guy Crawford” siding with a revolutionary mob in St. Petersburg, and leaping to the defence of a Jewish student. The student, who was killed in this fantastical account, was described by Crawford as “a champion of justice, like thousands who have fallen for it in the dark records of this dark land” [2]. These examples probably provide a fair reflection of Chesterton’s late teenage attitudes. However, his worldview, as with most people, changed over time. An example of his developing worldview can be seen in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904). According to William Oddie, in this novel, Chesterton expressed “distaste for modernity and progress.” He quite rightly points out that this distaste was “a recent volte-face” [3]. This was not however the only volte-face in Chesterton’s worldview and discourse. He also changed his views about the Jews.

A relatively early and partial manifestation of this volte-face can be found in his novel, Manalive (1912), which reflected his worldview no less than the letters of Guy Crawford. According to the narrator of the story, “wherever there is conflict, crises come in which any soul, personal or racial, unconsciously turns on the world the most hateful of its hundred faces.” In the case of Moses Gould, the Jew in the novel, it was “that smile of the Cynic Triumphant, which has been the tocsin for many a cruel riot in Russian villages or mediaeval towns” [4]. As Cheyette has observed, the construction of the Jew as “innocent victim” seems to have been replaced in Manalive by the Russian Jew’s so-called “racial failure to go beyond his ‘cynical’ rationality” [5].

The transition from innocent victim in Russia to arch-cynic in Russia was only a partial volte-face. The complete volte-face would come later in the early 1920s, when Chesterton started to claim that the Jews were persecuting Russians. His narratives about the Jewish tyrant were intertwined with stereotypes about the Jewish Bolshevik. For example, in February 1921, Chesterton observed that there was once “a time when English poets and other publicists could always be inspired with instantaneous indignation about the persecuted Jews in Russia. We have heard less about them since we heard more about the persecuting Jews in Russia” [6]. He repeated this narrative about how it was once observed that it was the Jews who were persecuted in Russia, and now it is the Jews who persecute Russians, in What I Saw in America (1922). He stated that “we used to lecture the Russians for oppressing the Jews, before we heard the word Bolshevist and began to lecture them for being oppressed by the Jews” [7].

There were of course many Jews who were sympathetic towards Socialism and Bolshevism, just as there were many non-Jews who were sympathetic towards Socialism and Bolshevism. There were also many Jews who were antagonistic towards Bolshevism, and it was in no sense a Jewish movement. Chesterton did at least recognise that not all Jews were Bolsheviks, but he claimed that those who were not Bolsheviks were instead rich capitalists. Capitalism, he believed, was merely the other side of Communism. Despite acknowledging that not all Jews were Bolsheviks, he nevertheless painted a picture of Bolshevism as a specifically Jewish movement. For example, Chesterton stated in January 1921 that a study by H. G. Wells contained a “touch of an unreal relativity” when it came to “the Jewish element in Bolshevism.” Wells had observed that whilst many of the Russian exiles were Jewish, there were some who were not Jews. As he had on many other occasions, Chesterton conversely rejected the idea that Jews could be Russians. He clarified that the exiles were Jewish as there were “next to no real Russian exiles.” More significantly, he stated that “it is not necessary to have every man a Jew to make a thing a Jewish movement; it is at least clear that there are quite enough Jews to prevent it from being a Russian movement” [8]. He made a similar claim in August 1920: “There has arisen on the ruins of Russia a Jewish servile State, the strongest Jewish power hitherto known in history. We do not say, we should certainly deny, that every Jew is its friend; but we do say that no Jew is in the national sense its enemy” [9].

In June 1922, Chesterton expressed his hope that “some day there may be a little realism in the newspapers dealing with public life, as well as in the novels dealing with private life.” He stated that on that day, “we may hear something of the type that really is Bolshevist and generally is Jewish.” In addition to the type that becomes “an atheist from a vague idea that it is part of being a revolutionist,” there was “another type, less common but more clear-headed, who has really become a revolutionist only as part of being an atheist.” According to Chesterton, it was pointless to question this “special sort of young Jew” who exhorted the poor to attack the priest even though the priest was even poorer than they were, because “it was only in order to attack the priest that he ever troubled about the poor.” Chesterton concluded that this type of Jew “knows his own religion is dead; and he hates ours for being alive” [10].

Referring to Dr Oscar Levy, a prominent Jewish scholar of Nietzsche, Chesterton stated that: “He is a very real example of a persecuted Jew; and he was persecuted, not merely by Gentiles, but rather specially by Jews. He was hounded out of this country in the most heartless and brutal fashion, because he had let the cat out of the bag; a very wild cat out of the very respectable bag of the commercial Jewish bagman. He told the truth about the Jewish basis of Bolshevism, though only to deplore and repudiate it.” However, in response, Oscar Levy promptly wrote to Chesterton, pointing out that he was not driven out of England by Jews at all, and that the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish World had supported him against the decision by the Home Office. Furthermore, Levy argued that Bolshevism was more closely related to Christianity than to Judaism. The idea that the Anglo-Jewish community pulled the strings of the Home Office to arrange for Levy to be removed from Britain was simply a Bellocian and Chestertonian antisemitic invention [11].

Chesterton never abandoned the myth that Bolshevism was a Jewish movement. For example, whilst criticising “Hitlerism” in 1933, he asserted that the Jews “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. For both Capitalism and Communism rest on the same idea: a centralisation of wealth which destroys private property.” And referring to Jews in his autobiography, he stated that “Capitalism and Communism are so very nearly the same thing, in ethical essence, that it would not be strange if they did take leaders from the same ethnological elements” [12].

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Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Stereotype of “the Jewish Bolshevik”

1.    William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton,” in William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010), 124-137.

2.    William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton,” 127-128; William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 80-81. The diary entry for 5 January 1891 can be found on page 24 of notebook (1890-1891), ADD MS 73317A, G. K. Chesterton Papers. The letters can be found in G. K. Chesterton [Guy Crawford, pseud.], “The Letters of Three Friends,” Debater III: no.13 (March 1892), 9-11; no.14 (May 1892), 27-29; no.17 (November 1892), 70-71. The letters were published in 1892, not 1891 as William Oddie suggests.

3.    William Oddie, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908,  8.

4.    G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (London: Thomas Nelson, 1912), 289.

5.    See Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of “the Jew” in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 192.

6.    G. K. Chesterton, “The Statue and the Irishman,” New Witness, 18 February 1921, 102.

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

8.    G. K. Chesterton, “The Beard of the Bolshevist,” New Witness, 14 January 1921, 22.

9.    G. K. Chesterton, “The Feud of the Foreigner,” New Witness, 20 August 1920, 309. Chesterton shared this idea that Bolshevism was a Jewish movement with his close friend Hilaire Belloc. See Hilaire Belloc, The Jews (London: Constable, 1922), 167-185. See also Simon Mayers: The Catholic Federation, Hilaire Belloc, Antisemitism and Anti-Masonry

10.   G. K. Chesterton, “The Materialist in the Mask,” New Witness, 30 June 1922, 406-407.

11.   See G. K. Chesterton, “The Napoleon of Nonsense City,” G.K.’s Weekly, 14 August 1926, 388-389; Letter from Oscar Levy to the editor of G.K.’s Weekly, “Dr. Oscar Levy and Christianity,” G.K.’s Weekly, 13 November 1926, 126; Letter from Oscar Levy to the editor of G.K.’s Weekly, “Mr. Nietzsche Wags a Leg,” G.K.’s Weekly, 2 October 1926, 44-45. For more on Chesterton and Oscar Levy, see the following blog post, “A look at G. K. Chesterton and Oscar Levy on the ‘169th birthday’ of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”

12.   G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311 and G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1936), 76.

 

 

G. K. Chesterton and the Myth of the Child-Kidnapping Gypsy

It was reported in various newspapers yesterday (23/10/2013) that Irish police had seized a blonde-haired girl from a Roma Gypsy family in Dublin. According to the report in the Times, “the blonde girl with blue eyes, believed to be aged seven, was taken from her Dublin home after a tip-off to police that she did not look like her parents or siblings, who have dark hair and complexions.” The report in the Times noted similarities with other recent cases. For example, it noted that police arrested a Roma woman in Greece in 2008 and accused her of kidnapping a blonde girl. DNA tests later proved that the Roma woman in Greece was the parent. According to Siobhan Curran, the co-ordinator of a Roma support project, “old stereotypes” are being resurrected that could lead to a “witch-hunt” [1].

According to a BBC news report today (24/10/2013), DNA tests have now proven that the blond girl in Dublin is the daughter of the Roma parents. A statement by An Garda Síochána (the Irish Police service) observed that “protecting vulnerable children is of paramount importance”. On the surface the statement seems reasonable enough. However, if tip-offs based on little more than  children being blonde-haired are sufficient to lead to them being removed from their Roma parents by police, then Siobhan Curran’s concerns about old stereotypes and a witch-hunt are not without foundation [2].

Significantly, G. K. Chesterton, currently being investigated as a possible candidate for sainthood, also repeated this myth of the child-kidnapping gypsy. He combined this anti-Roma myth with that of the anti-Jewish stereotype of the “Hebrew usurer”. According to Chesterton in The New Jerusalem: “It is absurd to say that people are only prejudiced against the money methods of the Jews because the medieval church has left behind a hatred of their religion. We might as well say that people only protect the chickens from the Gipseys because the medieval church undoubtedly condemned fortune-telling. It is unreasonable for a Jew to complain that Shakespeare makes Shylock and not Antonio the ruthless money-lender; or that Dickens makes Fagin and not Sikes the receiver of stolen goods. It is as if a Gipsey were to complain when a novelist describes a child as stolen by the Gipseys, and not by the curate or the mothers’ meeting. It is to complain of facts and probabilities. There may be good Gipseys; there may be good qualities which specially belong to them as Gipseys; many students of the strange race have, for instance, praised a certain dignity and self-respect among the women of the Romany. But no student ever praised them for an exaggerated respect for private property, and the whole argument about Gipsey theft can be roughly repeated about Hebrew usury.” [3]

The myth of the child-kidnapping gypsy who steals chickens and children (linked to a caricature of “the Jews” and “Zionism”) can also be found in Chesterton’s newspaper. According to G.K.’s Weekly:The idea of Zionism may be impossible, but it was certainly ideal. It consisted of the perfectly true conception that in the quarrel of Jews and Gentiles there had been faults on both sides. It is rather as if the authorities had gone to the race that we call Gypsies and said something like this, without the least malice or prejudice and with a desire for a settlement: ‘We think it is absurd of you to say that none of you ever steal chickens; and we suspect that there is some truth in the story that some of you stole children. On the other hand, we think it abominable that you should be knocked about from pillar to post, and hunted by landlords and magistrates, and we make a proposal. We will give you a great piece of common land where you often camp and build you houses there and hope we shall all be friends.’ That was the implication of Zionism; the world as a whole had some persecution to apologize for; the Jews as a whole had some usury and similar things to apologise for.” [4]

As Peter McGuire (lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College Dublin) reports, the child-kidnapping gypsy, like the ritual murdering Jew (another antisemitic myth that Chesterton seemed to embrace [5]), is a character from folktale. For centuries, Jews and Roma have both been branded as thieves, parasites, sorcerers, child-kidnapers and murderers. McGuire concludes, quite rightly, that it is sad but true that “societies are notoriously resistant to accept or even consider evidence which challenges the ancient prejudices expressed in folklore” [6]. The fact that Roma and Sinti continue to be vilified, and child-kidnapping folktales continue to circulate, testifies to the resilience and durability of such cultural myths and stereotypes.

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Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Myth of the Child-Kidnapping Gypsy

1. “Police seize blonde girl from Roma in Dublin,” The Times, 23 October 2013, p.5. Similar reports can be found in other English daily newspapers for 23 October 2013.

2. “DNA tests prove Dublin Roma girl is part of family,” BBC News Europe (link here).

3. G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1920), p.232. Page numbers in other editions may vary but the page can be found in chapter XIII.  The strange spelling of “Gipsey” is found in the Thomas Nelson and Sons 1920 edition of The New JerusalemSome later editions of The New Jerusalem have changed “Gipseys” to “gipsies.”

4. [G. K. Chesterton], G.K.’s Weekly, 2 May 1925, p.126.

5. G. K. Chesterton and his brother Cecil Chesterton both believed that whilst the accusation could not be levelled at all Jews, some diabolic secret societies of Jews engaged in ritual murder. In 1914, in the New Witness, in response to the Beilis blood libel, Cecil Chesterton characterised Russian pogroms as something horrible, but also something to be understood as part of an ongoing “bitter historic quarrel” between the Jews and the Russians. The evidence, Cecil Chesterton argued, points to a “savage religious and racial quarrel.” He suggested that it was sometimes the “naturally kindly” Russians who were “led to perpetrate the atrocities,” and sometimes it was the “equally embittered” Jews, who, “when they got a chance of retaliating, would be equally savage.” Referring to the Beilis affair, he stated that: “An impartial observer, unconnected with either nation, may reasonably inquire why, if we are asked to believe Russians do abominable things to Jewish children, we should at the same time be asked to regard it as incredible … that Jews do abominable things to Russian children – at Kieff, for instance”. In response, Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish author and playwright, wrote a letter to Cecil, rightly arguing that following Cecil’s flawed logic we should have to accept that if hooligans throttle Quakers then Quakers must also be throttling hooligans. In reply, Cecil Chesterton stated that no sane man would suggest that ritual murder was a religious rite of Judaism, but “there may be ferocious secret societies among the Russian Jews,” and “such societies may sanctify very horrible revenges with a religious ritual.” Cecil Chesterton also revived the anti-Jewish host desecration myth. He argued that in the case of Kieff, “the Jews may or may not have insulted the Host, as was alleged. I do not know. But I do know that they wanted to; because I know what a religion means, and therefore what a religious quarrel means” (Cecil Chesterton, “Israel and ‘The Melting Pot,’” New Witness, 5 March 1914, 566-567; Cecil Chesterton, “A Letter from Mr. Zangwill,” New Witness, 12 March 1914, 593-594). In 1925, G. K. Chesterton stated that “the Hebrew prophets were perpetually protesting against the Hebrew race relapsing into idolatry that involved such a war upon children; and it is probable enough that this abominable apostasy from the God of Israel has occasionally appeared in Israel since, in the form of what is called ritual murder; not of course of any representative of the religion of Judaism, but by individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews” (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, London: Hodder and Stoughton, [1925], 136). For more on this, see Simon Mayers, “From the Christ-Killer to the Luciferian: The Mythologized Jew and Freemason in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century English Catholic Discourse,” Melilah 8 (2011), pp.48-49. Melilah is the open access peer-reviewed journal of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester (link here).

6. Peter McGuire, “Do Roma ‘Gypsies’ Really Abduct Children?”, The Huffington Post, 24 October 2013 (link here).

G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers (the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian): 1918-1921

One argument that is often advanced against the claim that G. K. Chesterton was antisemitic is that some Jews have defended him from the charge. This is true. Michael Coren, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, is just one recent example. No doubt there were other Jewish fans of Chesterton then as there are now. Laurence Solomon, one of Chesterton’s friends, no doubt defended him from the charge. It would be interesting to know how he perceived and reacted to Chesterton’s caricatures and stereotypes. As Richard Ingrams recently asked in the Tablet, did Chesterton really believe that his Jewish friends would be okay with being “forced to wear an Arab-style headdress in public” and being forced to “live in a ghetto?” [1] Did these ideas irritate his Jewish friends Did they simply ignore them? Did they find them amusing? In most cases there is no way to know. The author Gladys Bronwyn Stern, another Jewish convert to Catholicism, regarded Chesterton as a saint. As early as the 1950s she wrote that she would “offer no apology for the habit which has gradually stolen in on me, of regarding two close friends whom I have never met, G. K. Chesterton and Baron von Hügel, as undoubtedly saints” [2]. 

However, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint, though true, is a questionable defence. As Joseph Pearce, one of Chesterton’s most fervent defenders, has noted, “it is true that the adage ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’ is not, in itself, an adequate defence against the charge of anti-Semitism” [3]. Whilst some Jews have defended Chesterton, a number of his Anglo-Jewish contemporaries regarded him as an antisemite. The Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill has been cited in Chesterton’s defence on a number of occasions. It is often claimed that they were close friends. It took some digging but I did in fact find a couple of letters that suggest that prior to 1916 some sort of amicable relationship may have existed between the two authors. However, from 1916 onwards, Zangwill argued that Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton were antisemitic on a number of occasions. For more on this, see the claim that Chesterton and the Anglo Jewish author Israel Zangwill were friends.

The three prominent Anglo-Jewish newspapers during Chesterton’s lifetime, the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish World and Jewish Guardian, were all critical of Chesterton’s antisemitic discourse. In June 1918, the Jewish Chronicle criticised G. K. Chesterton for his accusation that the Jews carelessly trampled people underfoot as they rushed to the tube stations during air raids. The paper stated that “we cannot congratulate Mr. G. K. Chesterton on the reply he makes to the Jewish World on the questions that journal addressed to him. Mr. Chesterton’s paper, the New Witness, referring to the last air raid, asserted that while the attack was dealt with in a highly satisfactory way ‘the conduct of Jews of all classes during these raids continues deplorable in the extreme.’” The Jewish Chronicle observed that based on a “hotch-potch” of so-called evidence from “a lady sub-editor [i.e. Ada Chesterton], her maid, and unknown chatterers at Euston, Jews of all classes … are accused of deplorable cowardice and bad conduct in the extreme.” It stated that this was “a cruel and reckless libel upon a Community which has sent its sons by the thousand to the Front, and is every day called upon to suffer new pangs and fresh bereavements.” The Jewish Chronicle reported that Mr. Chesterton argued that it was more important to understand the cause of these Jewish rushes than to deny “so vast a popular impression as that of the different attitude of Jews and Gentiles towards the War.” “The spectacle of Mr. G. K. Chesterton bidding us bow down before a ‘vast popular impression,’” was, the paper concluded, “deliciously funny” [4]. When quizzed by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle as to whether he himself had witnessed Jews cowering in tube stations, Chesterton admitted that he had not personally witnessed this, but he argued that it was a matter of common knowledge. He stated that “the problem of aliens in air-raids is a thing that everybody knows.” He also argued that he could not be expected to go looking “for Jews in the Tubes, instead of going about my business above ground.” He concluded be stating that: “if my London affairs had led me, as well as my colleagues, into the Tubes during an air-raid, I suppose I should have seen what they saw; and the editor [of the Jewish Chronicle] would have refused my testimony as he refused theirs.” [5].

Referring to “Mr. G. K. Chesterton” in an article on 11 October 1918, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle concluded that: “The argument against active self-defence, the surest of which, is counter-attack, is the well-known one – suppose our counter-attack fails? But that is, in essence, cowardice. This way lies disintegration and defeat. This way lies biting the dust of our eternal heritage. It were far better to fail in a counter-attack against the enemies of our people; it were far better to fail in active self-defence than not to try. It were far better to fall than to allow the ruthless, venomous Chestertons and Bellocs et hoc genus to trample upon our prostrate bodies with their brutal, heavy-footed, relentless anti-Semitism. Hit back! Hit back! Hit back! is the lesson for us, to be learnt by us from the ages through which we have lived” [6].

The Jewish World also criticised G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For example, a series of articles from 23 June through to 22 September 1920, criticised Chesterton for suggesting that the Anglo-Jewish newspapers published the honour rolls of German-Jewish soldiers killed in the war, with the added twist being that Chesterton claimed that this was by no means unreasonable as Jewry constituted a separate and distinct nation [7]. “Mr. Chesterton,” the Jewish World concluded, “now pretends that he does not see why we are so anxious to repudiate his allegation. That is really touching. He starts out to show that English Jews are not loyal to this country though they are its citizens, and then expresses surprise that we desired to repel the insinuation by showing that the proof he relies upon is false” [8].

For more examples from the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish World, I would recommend an article by Dean Rapp, “the Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” published in Patterns of Prejudice [9].

Chesterton’s The New Jerusalem, published in 1920, argued that Jews could never be proper Englishmen. Chesterton suggested that Zionism was a good idea and that Jews who choose to remain in England rather than travel to Palestine should be given a “special position best described as privilege; some sort of self-governing enclave with special laws and exemptions.” They should also, he suggested, be obliged to go about swathed in the robes of an Arab [10]. The Jewish Guardian responded by stating that Chesterton had contrived to “write a really stupid book.” The paper suggested that Chesterton would probably “account it a sign of inherited financial preoccupation if one poor Jewish bookman remarks that 12s. 6d. is a high price to exact for 300 empty pages” [11]. On 11 November 1921, the Jewish Guardian reported a lecture by Chesterton to a Jewish organisation called the “Ghetto Circle.” The paper suggested that Chesterton proposed to discuss “national traditions in Europe,” whilst the Ghetto Circle “no doubt would discuss whether he was an anti-Semite.” The Jewish Guardian concluded that this “seemed a very fair division of labour” [12].

In conclusion, the fact that some Jews have defended Chesterton as a saint does not prove that he was not an antisemite; and in fairness, the fact that some Jews have argued that he was an antisemite does not by itself prove that he was. The case must be decided on the basis of the evidence (i.e. what he wrote as a journalist and author) and not the claim that some Jews have defended him, or the myth that the Wiener Library defends him.

Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Anglo-Jewish Newspapers

1.  Richard Ingrams, “More sinner than saint,” Tablet, 12 October 2013, 9.

2.  G. B. Stern, The way it worked out (London: Catholic Book Club, [1956]), 106. See also G. B. Stern, All in Good Time (London: Sheed and Ward, [1954]), 63.

3.  Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 448.

4.  “A Reckless Charge,” Jewish Chronicle, 14 June 1918, 4.

5.  G. K. Chesterton, At the Sign of the World’s End, New Witness, 21 June 1918, 148.

6.  Leopold Greenberg [Mentor, pseud.], “Hit Back! Hit Back! Hit Back!,” In the Communal Armchair, Jewish Chronicle, 11 October 1918, 7.

7.  See Jewish World: “Englishman and Jew” and “An Astounding Statement,” 23 June 1920, 3-4; “Mr. Belloc and the ‘Jewish World,’” 14 July 1920, 2-3; “Now then, Mr. Chesterton!,” 21 July 1920, 3; “Our Challenge to the ‘New Witness,” 28 July 1920, 3; “The Witness,” 18 August 1920, 3; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 25 August 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 1 September 1920, 2; “Mr. Chesterton and the ‘Jewish World,’” 8 September 1920, 8-9; “Mr. Chesterton’s ‘Roll,’” 22 September 1920, 2.

8.  “Why?,” Around the World, Jewish World, 22 September 1920, 2.

9.  Dean Rapp, “The Jewish Response to G. K. Chesterton’s Antisemitism, 1911-33,” Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 24, nos. 2-4, 1990.

10.  G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson, [1920]), 227, 248.

11.  “‘G.K.C.’ in Jerusalem,” Jewish Guardian, 3 December 1920, 7.

12.  “Mr. G. K. Chesterton at the Ghetto Circle,” Jewish Guardian, 11 November 1921, 4.

 

G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc discussing Hitler and the Jews (1933-1937)

Some of G. K. Chesterton’s fervent defenders (especially those who would like to see him declared a saint) argue that he could never have been antisemitic because he was a staunch and early critic of Hitler. The argument that he could not have been antisemitic on the grounds that he criticised Hitler is weak and unsound. Interpreted in the very best light, it would only demonstrate that Chesterton, in the final years of his life, eventually overcame his anti-Jewish discourse. However, the evidence does not even support the conclusion that he overcome his antisemitic prejudice, for there is little to suggest that he actually altered or softened his opinions about Jews or the so-called “Jewish Problem” after Hitler rose to power in Germany. If anything, Chesterton considered his critiques of “Hitlerism” and Nazi antisemitism to be entirely consistent with his earlier deprecating stereotypes of the Jew and his proposed solutions to the Jewish Problem. As far as Chesterton was concerned, the rise of Hitlerism clarified the urgency of solving the so-called Jewish Problem. Significantly, he not only continued to maintain his antisemitic stereotypes of the Jew from 1933 onwards, he incorporated them into the very articles in which he condemned and criticised Hitlerism. So yes, he did say in an oft-quoted interview in 1933 that he was “quite ready to believe” that he and Belloc would “die defending the last Jew in Europe” (“Mr. G. K. Chesterton on Truculent Prussianism,” Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1933, 14.) But then he also claimed in G.K.’s Weekly in July 1933 that “it is perfectly true that the Jews have been very powerful in Germany. It is only just to Hitler to say that they have been too powerful in Germany.” Chesterton argued that it will be very difficult for Hitler to persuade Germans to amputate the Jewish contributions to German culture, such as Heinrich Heine and Felix Mendelssohn. “But again,” he continued, “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.” Chesterton went on to state that “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(G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933, 311).

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G. K. Chesterton, “The Judaism of Hitler,” G.K.’s Weekly, 20 July 1933.

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Chesterton repeated the antisemitic stereotype of rich greedy Jews in other articles that were critical of Hitler. For example, in an essay entitled “On War Books,” he condemned “Herr Hitler and his group” for “beat[ing] and bully[ing] poor Jews in concentration camps,” but then he stated that “what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses” (G. K. Chesterton, “On War Books,” G.K.’s Weekly, 10 October 1935, 28). Interestingly, a later version of this essay, published posthumously in a volume entitled The End of the Armistice in 1940, omits the entire sentence in which Chesterton lamented that rich banking Jews escaped the beating and bullying (G. K. Chesterton, “On War Books,” in The End of the Armistice, edited by Frank Sheed, London: Sheed & Ward, 1940, 192). Presumably the decision to remove the offensive sentence was made by Frank Sheed, the volume’s editor and publisher.

Chesterton repeated the stereotype of the pro-German Jew in his critique of Hitler. He asked, “was Hitler really so ignorant, that he did not know that the Jews were the prop of the Pro-German cause throughout the world?” (G. K. Chesterton, “A Very Present Help,” G.K.’s Weekly, 4 May 1933, 135). Chesterton criticised Hitler, and then repeated his claim that there is a Jewish Problem. He 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?” (G. K. Chesterton, “A Queer Choice,” G.K.’s Weekly, 29 November 1934, 207).

Chesterton’s criticisms of Dreyfus and the Dreyfusards, which he often repeated throughout his journalistic career (link for G. K. Chesterton and the Dreyfus affair)were also repeated in his critiques of Hitler. He stated in March 1933 that when England “wanted to abuse France, where there is really very little real Anti-Semitism, we turned the world upside about the condemnation of one isolated individual Jewish officer, who had attained a high position of confidence, and who was charged, rightly or wrongly, with violating that confidence.” Chesterton combined criticising the Germans for persecuting Jews with repeating his earlier assertions that Dreyfus was probably a Germany spy. According to Chesterton, the English were never informed 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.” Chesterton criticised Hitler for persecuting ordinary Jews, and then observed that in the case of Dreyfus, the “particular Jew in France may or may not have been a traitor; but at least he was tried for being a traitor” (G. K. Chesterton, “The Horse and the Hedge,” G.K.’s Weekly, 30 March 1933, 55). As Julia Stapleton has rightly noted, it seems that it never occurred to Chesterton to question whether there was any truth in the highly dubious allegations that Dreyfus was seen “in German uniform at the German manoeuvres,” or whether the claims “were suspect and thus beyond the realms of responsible journalism” (Julia Stapleton, Christianity, Patriotism, and Nationhood: The England of G. K. Chesterton, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009).

Chesterton also sometimes defended Hitler as if he were a mere puppet or “tool”. In September 1934, he stated that “I may possibly cause some surprise, if I conclude the composite portrait by saying that in certain aspects, and under certain limitations, I do not believe that Hitler is altogether a bad fellow; and that he is almost certainly a much better fellow than the men who are going to use him.” Chesterton suggested that in the beginning “he did really intend to do something for the poor, and especially for the peasants.” If he “did not do enough for his better ideas, and later did much more for his worst ones,” Chesterton argued, then “the reason is quite simply that he is not the Dictator.” He concluded that Hitler’s puppeteer or “drill-sergeant” will “soon give him his marching orders again” (G. K. Chesterton, “The Tool,” G.K.’s Weekly, 6 September 1934, 8-9). He repeated this idea in March 1936, when Hitler ordered the occupation of the Rhineland in contravention of the Versailles treaty. Chesterton stated that: “I have always said that there were healthy elements in Hitlerism, and even in Hitler; indeed I rather suspect that Hitler is one of the healthy elements in Hitlerism.” Chesterton argued that Hitler was “a better man than the men around him or behind him” (G. K. Chesterton, “Why did he do it?”, G.K.’s Weekly, 26 March 1936, 18).

As mentioned near the beginning of this short essay, Chesterton did say in an interview in 1933, that he was “quite ready to believe” that he and his close friend Hilaire Belloc would “die defending the last Jew in Europe”. Like Chesterton, Belloc did criticise Nazism. Chesterton and Belloc were also both staunch critics of the eugenics movement – though Chesterton’s book on eugenics included caricatures of Jews (See G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, London: Cassell and Company, 1922; “Hilaire Belloc and the Ministry of Health,” Catholic Federationist, September 1920, 6). However, also like Chesterton, Belloc’s defence of Jews was somewhat equivocal. In his third edition of The Jews published in 1937, Belloc framed the problem of the Nazi persecution of Jews as one primarily of efficacy in solving the so-called “Jewish Problem”. Belloc asked what effect Nazi policy would “have upon a solution of the Jewish question?” “Is it,” he asked, “an advance towards a just solution of that question or not?” He observed that “there is no doubt that the Nazi attack was sincere” and that “there is no doubt that in the eyes of its authors it was provoked by a situation which they thought intolerable.” But the “Nazi attack”, he concluded, could be “neither thorough nor final.” Belloc argued that “it is not immoral, to declare a new policy and to say, ‘we will in future regard Jews as citizens of a different class from those around them, their hosts.” However, he concluded that the attack was unjust because “when things of that kind are done, justice demands that the effect shall be gradual, and that the loser by any new regulation shall be compensated.” It seems however that the main point of contention for Belloc was not that the Nazi policy was unjust, but that it was a failed policy. “The Nazi attack upon such of the Jewish race as are subject to Berlin is,” Belloc concluded, “not thorough, not final, but incomplete, and I think soon to prove abortive.” According to Belloc, “the policy has missed its mark, on lower grounds: it has missed its mark, because it has not dared to be thorough and has not had the competence to be well thought out” (Hilaire Belloc, The Jews, third edition, London: Constable, 1937, xxxix- xliii).

At best these essays by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc reveal an ambivalent sentiment about Jews (which is to say, thinly veiled antipathy towards Jews, combined with equivocal defences of them). They were more an attack on what Chesterton referred to as “truculent Prussianism”, and an equivocal criticism of Hitler, than a defence of Jews. And this was the period in which, according to his defenders, Chesterton’s discourse about Jews was at its most sympathetic.

For more about G. K. Chesterton’s antisemitism, see: Chesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G. K. Chesterton