The War on the Barbarians

By G. K. Chesterton

[Everybody's Magazine, October 1914]

A nation is a society that has a soul. When a society has two souls, there is—and ought to be—civil war. The second must either be conquered like the Southern States, or liberated like the Irish. For anything which has dual personality is certainly mad; and probably possessed by devils.

The awful struggle between the separate societies of Europe to-day is a spiritual struggle; and is utterly unintelligible if taken as anything but a spiritual struggle. The first necessity is to tear off all the labels, in order to get at the goods. You may amuse yourself by having a system of labels, black and white, azure and crimson, for explaining the characters and motives of the nations; but you will find you can not explain the conduct of the nations by them. Use any of these stale Victorian tests, and the whole tale will make no sense.

For instance, suppose you say that royalties are ranged against republics: you will have to deduce that Russia and Prussia are in alliance against France; and that Belgium is on the one side and Switzerland on the other. You will find that you have made a miscalculation.

Or, if you argue on the lines of Captain Mahan, and make it a study of sea-power against land-power, you will bring out the surprising deduction that England and Germany are in alliance against France and Austria.

Or, if you call it Individualism, as distinguished from Socialism or Communism, then you will go mad again. For you must admit that in a sense Prussia is much more Socialistic than we are; and Russia is much more Communistic than we are.

It will be the same if you seek to settle it by race, and call it a war between Slav and Teuton. You will be faced with the painful scientific fact that the French certainly are not Slavs; but the Prussians most probably are.

If you make it a war of the advanced and more modern nations against the more barbaric, you must manage to believe that Paris thinks Sofia more modern than Vienna.

By applying all the old electioneering tests, we could arrange the powers of Europe in every conceivable combination: except the real one. If it were Universal Manhood Suffrage, it would be Prussia and France against the world. If it were Free Trade, it would be England against the world. If it were Public Examination and la carrière ouverte aux talents, it would be Russia and China against the world. If it were the thing they call Temperance Reform, it would be Normandy, Brittany, Picardy, Gascony, Burgundy, Bavaria, California, Saxony, Italy, Spam, Portugal, Austria-Hungary, Bohemia, Russia, the Balkans, the Grecian Archipelago, South Germany, and South England, etc., etc., against all that is left of the world. If it had been Female Suffrage, it would have been the British Colonies against Britain.

But if the great war is not concerned with these rather shallow old political problems, still less is it concerned with something much shallower: the mere self-interest of the empires in "the balance of power." None of the nations has fought with a more crusading fervor than Belgium, which need never have been involved at all, and which is certain to lose rather than gain, in all except the spiritual sense. The peace in Italy is almost as chivalric as the war in Belgium. If Italy had attacked France she would have followed all diplomatic rules, and probably reaped many diplomatic favors: there can not be the smallest doubt that she refrained because the subjects of Victor Emmanuel sympathized with the French. In short, Italy is in the Triple Alliance, but the Italians are not. I gravely doubt whether there was a single Italian, from the blackest blasphemer and assassin in the Camorra, to the great priest and peasant who has just died on the highest spiritual throne of this planet, who would not have preferred to see France killing Prussia, rather than Prussia killing France.

It is in such dark, democratic unanimities that the truth of this time is to be sought. This war is a great many other things as well. It is, as I have said, a spiritual war; it is in essence, though not in accidents, a religious war; but it is, above all things, a popular war. It is at once the most unwilling and the most willing war the world has known.


Eliminating all the cross-currents of accidents, the internal violence of Servia, the vulturous expectancy of Turkey, the pardonable sulks of Bulgaria, the presence of division in Germany, and something like reluctance in Austria, we may say that in bulk this business is rather a revolution than a war. It is the revolt, or the recoil, or whatever you call it, against the enormous and abnormal effort by which the petty princes of Brandenburg managed in a few generations to get themselves crowned like Charlemagne in the Gallery of Battles of Versailles. It is the backwash of 1870; all the waters flowing back into their natural channels.

For when that Prussian effort was crowned with success at Sedan, all Europe knew in its heart, though its head was too stunned to move, that the success had about it something tragic and unnatural, like the prosperity of Oedipus; and that the peace that followed would be a silent pain.

I have deliberately called the question spiritual even rather than moral: I might call it psychological or even psychic. There was something about that evil romance that began with the rape of Silesia and ended with the rape of Alsace, that looked even more unthinkable than unjustifiable. It had a kind of abstract impiety. And above all, it was like some awful and imperial pyramid standing on its apex: for it involved the supremacy of inferior over superior things. The best, working definition of the state of affairs was given by a particularly patent and lucid French politician, Monsieur Hanotaux, when he said: "There goes up a cry from all the peoples, 'Down with barbarians!'

But though the word "barbarian" is the key of the situation, it is very liable to be misunderstood. The Prussians themselves can not form a notion of what we mean when we call them barbarians; and that, as I shall-show in a moment, is precisely because they are barbarians. They are perfectly and even pathetically sincere when they say they are the People of Culture; and even when they practically deny that there is any culture at all in the land of Turgenev and the land of Chopin. And the Prussians really are cultured in the sense that they read a great many books. But the spirit of civilization is not to be found in books.

Nor is barbarism a mere term of abuse for what people call "militarism." Many of the most genuinely civilized states the world has known have been and are very military. Napoleon was no more a barbarian than Raphael or Alfieri: he was a great and subtle Italian artist. The spirit of civilization does not lie in the absence of war: otherwise the vanguard of civilization would consist almost entirely of Eskimos.

Nor does barbarism mean anything so external even as real brutality and cruelty. Some of the most polished and enlightened societies in history, Athens, or Paris, have exacted appalling vengeance beyond the dreams of a Red Indian. No: the essence of barbarism is spiritual. It could easily coexist with universal knowledge or everlasting peace; but it can not be long regnant; because every man who has the soul of civilization feels it to be inferior even while it is supreme.


The psychology of the barbarian is this: that, like the lower animals, he does not understand reciprocity. He has not that little mirror in the mind in which we see the mind of the other man. If I scatter crumbs for the birds in winter, that will not prevent the birds from eating my fruit in summer; because birds, like Prussians, are barbarians. If I leave the bee his honey, he may still leave me his sting. And he has not broken any contract, because bees, like Prussians, are barbarians.

Now this fundamental unreason and inequality, as of men ruled by beasts, can be tested by taking any civilized institution in Prussia (and Prussia has nearly all civilized institutions) and noting that in each case Prussia has added this strange one-eyed and one-sided character. For instance, the duel is often called a relic of barbarism; but the duel, though it may be bad, is certainly not barbaric. It exists in Prussia; but it also exists in France, Italy, Belgium, Austria—in short, the duel exists almost everywhere where high civilization exists. But then the duel, right or wrong, is reciprocal.

What does specially exist in Prussia, and does not exist anywhere in the world except in Prussia, is the idea of an officer really thinking himself a fine fellow, not only because he wears a sword when other people don't, but even when he draws the sword on people who haven't got any. Prussian officers really talk with a monstrous solemnity about honor and vindication in connection with an armed man attempting to murder a shopkeeper. I may thrust with my rapier; you must not thrust with your rapier: that is the soul of the barbarian. He is in the true sense half-witted: he can see only half of every question that is presented to him. He can not turn his imaginative telescope round and look through the other end of it, even for a joke: the barbarian is incapable of jokes.

Now if we examine each of Prussia's claims, even her legitimate claims, we shall find that they all exhibit this one-eyed philosophy. Thus, it is quite true that North Germany has a kultur, a scheme of arts and sciences. France and Italy have constantly praised it; England and America have rather overpraised it. But it does not praise anything but itself. It claims to be at once German culture and also universal culture: it would substitute German not only for Polish but for Latin and for Esperanto.

Little Turk or Japanee,
Don't you wish that you were me?

is as far as its imagination can get in "world politics."

Or, again, the Germans will sing beautiful ballads and noble battle-hymns about that most sacred and poetical of all ideas, the idea of boundaries. They can understand the idea of a man kissing the soil when he comes to his native land—that is, if it is German land. They understand that Germany begins where France leaves off: but they do not seem to-be able to turn the map round and master the remarkable coincidence that France begins where Germany leaves off.

And while they were actually singing, with tears in their eyes, how fast and true stood the watch on Rhine, they were moving the watch miles and miles away from the Rhine to a country where nobody cared a curse about them, and a boundary which had no sacredness or meaning at all.

This is the real difference at the depths of this business: Russia makes war for a dogma or France for a theory; but the enormous and unlimited ambition of Prussia is merely a limitation of the mind.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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