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A few days ago, Michael Coren reported a so-called “ludicrous, surreal episode” . 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” . 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” .
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. 
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” . And in his biography of Chesterton the statement in defence of Chesterton is attributed to “the Wiener Library” . 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” .
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 . 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” . 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  .
Turning to Coren’s other main point, he observes that Chesterton was “an early anti-Nazi” . 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” . 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” . 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?” . (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” . 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.
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.
A popular defence of G. K. Chesterton is that he could not have been an antisemite because the Wiener Library, one of the UK’s key institutes dedicated to researching antisemitism and the Holocaust, has defended him from the charge. Michael Coren instituted this defence in The New Statesman in 1986. He stated that the “Wiener Institute, the best monitors of anti-semitism in Britain, does not regard Chesterton as a culprit.” Three years later, Coren attributed the following statement to the Wiener Library:
“The difference between social and philosophical anti-semitism is something which is not fully understood. … With Chesterton we’ve never thought of a man who was seriously anti-semitic on either count. He was a man who played along, and for that he must pay a price; he has, and has the public reputation of anti-semitism. He was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on.”
Coren did not provide a source for this alleged statement so it is not clear whether it was intended as an official or unofficial position of the Library. The Wiener Library informed me that “since the name of the person is not given, we can only suppose it to be an invention or else someone who was not entitled to talk, officially or unofficially, on the Library’s behalf.”
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 this Wiener Library Defence.
Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, Issue 61. Front cover and pages 2 and 10 (click on images to zoom in)
Significantly, in an article published in 1963 about antisemitism, the Wiener Library Bulletin did make a brief statement about Chesterton, but only to report that “no Briton, least of all a Catholic, will feel pride in the obsessions of G. K. Chesterton.”
The myth that the Wiener Library defended Chesterton has been recycled in a number of books, newspapers, and periodicals as if it was established truth. Joseph Pearce reproduced Coren’s defence in his own biography of Chesterton published in 1996. Aidan Mackey referred to it in a letter to the editor of the Jewish Chronicle in 1997. Ian Boyd, editor of The Chesterton Review and president of the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture, and Stratford Caldecott, chairman of the journal Second Spring, have also referred to it in more recent statements denying Chesterton’s antisemitism. William Oddie’s essay on the so-called “philosemitism” of Chesterton also cites the Wiener Library defence. The resilience of this myth is demonstrated by the fact that there are still numerous internet pages that refer to it.
Update (6 September 2013): In response to a request to cite his source for the statement attributed to the Weiner Library, Michael Coren stated in a twitter posting to @Barthsnotes and @OliverKamm (Oliver Kamm) on 2 September: “Conducted interview in 86, with the librarian there who spent the morning with me. 27 yrs ago. No idea of his name.” This would suggest that at best the reported views were the personal sentiments of one of the many librarians who have worked at the Wiener Library but were unauthorised to speak officially on the Library’s behalf, rather than the Wiener Library itself. It is of course impossible to verify without a name – and indeed, it may be reasonably asked why the librarian’s name was not collected and cited at the time.
Update (23 September 2013): In an online article published on 13 September, Coren stated that he discussed his research with a librarian at the Wiener Library but that he has “no name” and “no proof” as it was a quarter of a century ago.  This episode is discussed in “Ludicrous, surreal” defence of G. K. Chesterton“.
According to Oliver Kamm in the Jewish Chronicle (online edition, 10 October 2013; print edition, 11 October 2013), when he wrote to Coren to ask him about his statement about the Wiener Library defending Chesterton, Coren 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.”
Notes for the resilient myth that the Wiener Library defends G. K. Chesterton from the charge of antisemitism
1. Michael Coren, “Just bad friends,” review of G. K. Chesterton, by Michael Ffinch, New Statesman, 8 August 1986, 30.
2. Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who was G. K. Chesterton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989), 209-210.
3. Email to author from Michael Annegarn, Wiener Library (approved by Ben Barkow, Director of the Wiener Library), 22 March 2010.
4. Ben Barkow, “Director’s Letter,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 2.
5. Simon Mayers, “G. K. Chesterton and the Wiener Library Defence,” Wiener Library News, Winter 2010, 10.
6. “Christian Conscience on Trial,” Wiener Library Bulletin XVII, no. 4 (October 1963), 1.
7. Joseph Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 448.
8. Aidan Mackey, “Chesterton: Case for the defence,” Jewish Chronicle, 19 December 1997, 23.
9. See Ian Boyd, “Introduction,” Chesterton Review XXXII, no. 3&4 (Winter 2006), 276; Ian Boyd, Stratford Caldecott and Aidan Mackey, “Chesterton’s alleged ‘anti-Semitism,’” http://www.secondspring.co.uk/spring/semitism11.htm (downloaded 1 May 2013).
10. William Oddie, “The Philosemitism of G. K. Chesterton,” in William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010),130.
11. For some examples, see: https://simonmayers.com/2013/10/14/wikipedia-g-k-chesterton-and-the-wiener-library-defence/
12. 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).