I never cease to be amazed at the lengths to which some will go to excuse or belittle clear expressions of antisemitism articulated by public figures, present or past. The issue of G K Chesterton, to which Oliver Kamm brought our attention in the JC last month, is a case in point.
Chesterton (1874-1936) was a highly successful novelist, journalist and critic who converted to Catholicism. Rome likes to reward converts, perhaps in the hope of luring others to follow them. Now, it seems that moves are afoot (not for the first time) to propel Chesterton towards sainthood.
But there’s a problem: Chesterton had a much-publicised aversion to Jews and to Judaism.
In common with other literati of his generation, Chesterton harboured a hopelessly romantic view of an England that once was — they supposed — little else but a green and pleasant land, one which had been corrupted by industrialisation. The factory had driven a simple peasantry into a grim urban existence, as slaves of a system controlled by capitalists. Professor Colin Holmes, the leading contemporary historian of British antisemitism, explains (in Antisemitism in British Society) that, in Chesterton’s view, “19th-century capitalism was essentially usury, hence anti-Christian and the prominence of Jews in high finance merely underlined that capitalism was alien to Christian culture.”
Thus we find that in his Short History of England (1917), Chesterton wrote approvingly of Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. These Jews, Chesterton insisted, were the “capitalists of their age,” and Edward’s eviction of them was the commendable act of a “tender father of his people.” Moving forward to more modern times, Chesterton had the effrontery to attack the “acrid and irrational unanimity of the English Press” in siding with Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and continued to evince hostility towards Dreyfus even after the French state had admitted his innocence of the charge of treason levelled against him. As Kamm reminded us, Chesterton publicly (1911) denounced the type of Jew who is “a traitor in France and a tyrant in England.”
Chesterton was a leading member of the National League for Clean Government, which in 1913 sponsored meetings attacking Jewish influence on public morals. In 1918, he wrote a discreditable letter to Lord Reading (Rufus Isaacs, then the Lord Chief Justice of England), expressing the hope that Isaacs would play no part in peace negotiations with Germany. “Is there any man”, Chesterton asked, “who doubts that you will be sympathetic with the Jewish International?”
And in The New Jerusalem (1921) Chesterton declared his belief that, ultimately, Jews could never be considered loyal to the countries in which they dwelt. By all means, he argued, “let a Jew occupy any political or social position which he can gain in open competition.” But every Jew (remember this was 1921, not 1221) should wear a distinctive dress: “The point is that we should know where we are; and he should know where he is, which is in a foreign land.”
It is no defence of Chesterton to point out that he was, after a fashion, sympathetic to Zionism. Many British antisemites at that time were, since they viewed the establishment of a Jewish homeland as the least undesirable way of ridding Europe of its “Jewish Problem.”