He was one of the few convinced anti-racists of his time: the allegation just doesn’t add up
The week before the Chesterton Society’s biennial conference in Oxford at the beginning of this month I wrote a Herald blog about the conference’s subject, The Prophetic Voice of GK Chesterton. One of the hazards of blogging is the response – sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile – that accumulates beneath one’s article. Most of the comment was pro-Chesterton. Some was not. One comment was distinctly sarcastic. It read as follows: “I too can’t get enough of Chesterton or ‘GK’ as I like to call him. The wit, the learning, the sidesplitting humour, the rabid antisemitism… oops.” Oh dear. I replied by saying that Chesterton was not a rabid anti-Semite and that if my correspondent wanted to hear this question confronted by someone who knew what he was talking about (ie me) why not come to the conference? Or (another plug) why not read about it in The Holiness of GK Chesterton (Gracewing)?
The fact is that every time one speaks of Chesterton’s holiness or his prophetic voice, this question arises sooner or later; I had thought at one time that this calumny had died away, but it seems to be on the way back. When I published the main talks in the last Chesterton Society conference on The Holiness of GK Chesterton, together with some additional chapters, one of the chapters I found it had become necessary to add was based on a good deal of work I had done (in the Chesterton papers and other better known material), to do with Chesterton’s attitude to the Jews, as a result of which I came to the view that his attitude to Jewish people, and to Jewish culture and history, were such that I had to conclude that there was a much better case for saying that Chesterton was actually if anything pro-Jewish rather than anti-Semitic: and I ended up calling my chapter “The philosemitism of GK Chesterton”.
But the contrary perception is general, if the subject is addressed at all. One response to a friendly review of the Holiness book in the Tablet by Russell Sparkes was a letter to the editor from that supposed admirer of Chesterton, Richard Ingrams, who claimed that Chesterton “shut his eyes to a great deal of the unpleasantness and cruelty in the world, including his own circle”: by this he referred to his brother Cecil’s and his friend Hilaire Belloc’s anti-Semitism, which Ingrams claims influenced Chesterton “publicly to espouse views which were foreign to his nature but which remain a permanent blot on his reputation”.
Ingrams is certainly right when he says that anti-Semitism was foreign to Chesterton’s nature, despite his intermittent attacks on certain particular Jews, especially after the Marconi scandal: but it was their corruption or their plutocracy, not their Jewishness, that he hated. Speaking to the Jewish West End Literary society (incidentally, is it really conceivable that an anti-Semite would address such a body?) one newspaper recorded that “Mr Chesterton said that speaking generally, as with most other communities, ‘THE POOR JEWS WERE NICE AND THE RICH WERE NASTY’.”
Nor did he “shut his eyes” to the cruelties of anti-Semitism. He wrote with disgust of the “thousands of Jews [who] have… been rabbled or ruined or driven from their homes” by the Nazis, who “beat and bully poor Jews in concentration camps [this predated the policy of mass extermination] …. Heartily… I do indeed despise the Hitlerites”: he was “appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities”. But this was no deathbed conversion, as is sometimes supposed. There is a growing body of evidence of his fierce and lifelong hostility to anti-Jewish persecutions, his genuine support for the Zionist cause and his respect for Jewish culture.
It is sometimes worthwhile to state the obvious: if you are an anti-Semite, you are necessarily a racist. But Chesterton was one of the fiercest of anti-racists, in a culture in which most people really did believe in the notion of racial superiority – a belief expressed and codified in the widely accepted pseudo-science of eugenics, of which Chesterton was himself virtually the only major opponent. “I shall,” he wrote in 1925, “begin to take [racial distinctions] seriously … when I find a man classifying himself as inferior … I never heard a man say: Anthropology shows that I belong to an inferior race.” In 1934, he wrote that “the stupidest thing done in the last two or three centuries, was the acceptance by the Germans of the dictatorship of Hitler”, who had risen to power by “appealing to racial pride”. It was, he wrote, “staggering” that “a whole huge people should base its whole historical tradition on something that is … a lie”; this “racial religion” stank with “the odours of decay…”
Chesterton was aware of the accusations of anti-Semitism. “I lived to have…”, he wrote in his autobiography, “the name of an anti-Semite; whereas from my first days at school I very largely had the name of a pro-Semite… I was criticised … for quixotry and priggishness in protecting Jews”, a reference to his habit of intervening when Jewish boys were being bullied. Autobiographies are not always reliable: but there is considerable contemporary evidence for his schoolboy attitude to the Jews (including his Jewish friendships, notably with the Solomon brothers; Lawrence Solomon and his wife later moved to Beaconsfield to be near the Chestertons).
Chesterton was incensed by Russian persecution of the Jews, and recorded in his diary at the age of 18 his disgust at reading of the “Brutal falsehood and cruelty [shown by an official] to a Jewish girl. Made me feel strongly inclined to knock somebody down….” He wrote a series of anti-Russian articles in the school magazine he co-founded. “What do you think,” he wrote in one of them “of the persecution of the Jews in Russia? It has, at least, done one service to orthodoxy. It has restored my belief in the Devil.” In an undergraduate notebook, he recorded the following pensée: “No Christian ought to be an anti-Semite. But every Christian ought to be a Zionist.” At around this time he wrote a poem, praising Cromwell for re-admitting the Jews to England, and another bitterly attacking the French over the Dreyfus affair.
During his journey to Palestine in 1919, Chesterton had lunch with Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel: Weizmann would certainly have sniffed out an anti-Semite if Chesterton had actually been one; and there is a good deal to be said (but no space here to say it) about Chesterton’s belief in the Zionist cause. On his return, Chesterton wrote of his reverence for the Jewish spiritual tradition: “…if the Jew cannot be at ease in Zion [a reference to Amos 6:1: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion”] we can never again persuade ourselves that he is at ease out of Zion. We can only salute as it passes that restless and mysterious figure, knowing at last that there must be in him something mystical as well as mysterious; that whether in the sense of the sorrows of Christ or of the sorrows of Cain, he must pass by, for he belongs to God.” With that, we can place the following passage on “the mission… of the Jews” from The Everlasting Man, his first Catholic masterpiece: “…the meaning of the Jews,” says Chesterton, was “that the world owes God to the Jews… The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel.”
Chesterton was certainly not anti-Jewish. He was, however, writing at a time of a recent large-scale and as yet unassimilated Jewish immigration; and he accepted the Zionist analysis of this phenomenon: in the words of Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism: “We are aliens here, they do not let us dissolve into the population, and if they let us we would not do it. Let us go forth!” Better to understand Chesterton’s Zionist idea that Jews were not naturally a part of English culture, without perceiving it through the intervening lens of the Nazi Holocaust, we might compare it with some modern English perceptions of the Muslim community, still widely seen as being impossible to assimilate: thus, there is understood by many perfectly decent and tolerant people to be what might be termed a “Muslim problem”. The perspective of history may similarly show this “problem” too to be illusory. Chesterton, I suspect, would not be a Zionist today.