Should the United States Fight?
And What Is The Nature Of A Prussian?
By G. K. Chesterton
[The Independent; January 17, 1916]
How long will the war last? That's a difficult matter to determine. I may say, however, that I rather look for a sudden ending. Endings are sudden when you come to think of it, aren't they? We get into the habit of regarding most happenings as gradual. We watch the details of this stupendous conflict daily and our minds move slowly toward the contemplation of its definite end. Beginnings and endings are never gradual. Death itself is always a very definite happening and so I rather think Germany's end of this war may be as sudden as a volcano.
The Battle of the Marne dashed forever her hopes of conquest in the West. She then turned her face to the East in the hope of a definite decision. After many ups and downs, successes, failures, hopes and despairs, I do not believe she can now look for a definitely final decision there after her repulse in Russia. The likelihood of German conquest no longer exists. The only question for the Allies now is how long will it take for Germany to be worn out, exhausted. It is now only a question of when. When Russia sufficiently recovers herself to assume the offensive at the same time that the Allies push forward, the end will not be far off. Of course any conjectures of mine of this character must not be taken too seriously, for when you are dealing with self-respecting maniacs you can't be sure of anything. Self-respecting maniacs, because they really believe they're engaged in some kind of holy, uplifting work, which, sad to say, has to be forced on the rest of the world. They remind me of the Zealots during the fall, of Jerusalem.
They have all the bumptiousness of a gas balloon. They're far too stupid for any likelihood of an internal revolution, and even if there were any chance of it, Prussianism would nip it in the bud. And by the way, the Prussian hypnotism of the whole of Germany is one of the most amazing things I've ever heard of. Do you know that as recently as the taking of Schleswig-Holstein, Prussians were regarded as aliens in Germany? It was not until after the intoxicating success of the Franco-Prussian War that the Prussian was able to make himself the symbol of Germany. He made the rest of Germany believe that he was divinely ordained to boss them.
Bismarck typified Prussianism at its acme. Prussianism never consisted of a desire for leadership unless secured by conquest. And that idea holds good in Germany today. At one time the King of Prussia was actually offered the crown of United Germany, but he refused it on the ground that he had no desire to gain a throne at the behest of the people. He must win it by conquest or not at all.
It is hard to say today where Prussia ends and the rest of Germany begins. All Germany is absolutely hypnotized. Why, an ordinary German is incapable of governing himself, and if you suggested that he could do it, you would offend his sense of state rule. That's Prussianism for you—an entire squelching of the individual and individual right. The German character, with its strange inability to see anything true about humanity, is wonderfully well exemplified by those curious creatures known as German governesses whom we see in so many English families; or rather did see, with their monstrously serious and monstrously sensitive temperaments.
They are just as likely to burn down your house for some imagined grievance as they are to perform some marvelous act of self-sacrifice which a normal person could see was entirely unnecessary. Germans today are nearly all of this hysterical governess type. When they find themselves in the wrong, they explode temperamentally, deliberately behaving as devils, while honestly believing themselves to be angels. They are nationally afflicted with an egregious form of self-love which in a large measure has been pandered to and fostered by their mythology.
Germans dignify their mythology with the name of history. Fancy calling that spurious Treitschke-Bernhardi rubbish about waking up the whole world to Teutonism, history. Germans keep on judging the historic by the pre-historic, which is to say the least, a curious habit. All this undefined twaddle about Celts and Teutons is largely German pedantry, and we were almost catching the ghastly complaint in England. Learning real history is a far more difficult task than to talk rot about the prehistoric. You can always detect the sham student of history by his love of indefinite terms. For instance, you hear a lot about Celts, Teutons and Anglo-Saxons, whoever they are. Now if I say I'm an Englishman, it means something definite. You conjure up a picture of a man who likes tea and toast for breakfast, makes a fuss over his morning tub, is rather aggressively individual and that sort of thing. But if I say I'm a Teuton, it is really meaningless. Who knows any definite characteristics about Teutons? And yet it is just this vague kind of stuff that Germany has been yelling and screaming about for ages. She has told us time and again that we should love her more than we do, because the Germans and English all belong to the one great Anglo-Saxon-Teutonic family. Think of it. She has tried to prove to us by some mathematical formula that we are all one family. Utter nonsense. Who has more miserably and totally failed to understand us than the Germans?
Their colossal failure to understand anything about us almost proves that we must be related, for the failure of families to understand each other is proverbial. German "frightfulness," as exemplified by Zeppelin raids and submarine murders, not only shows an absolute misunderstanding of England, but is direct proof of German fear at home. Only the fearsome becomes desperate.
Germans regard the English joking habit as evidence of a ghastly shallowness and abandoned debauchery. With their own troops singing Deutschland über Alles in perfect time and perfect tune as they march into action, they look upon English light-hearted irony under such circumstances as approaching blasphemy. The newest battle-cry for our troops as they dash for enemy trenches is "Front seats two-and-sixpence." No self-respecting German would ever dream of using irony as a relaxation. This lack of humor is what produces Germany's somber egotism. Germany's idea, too, of a gentleman is what most other people regard as a cad. They seem to have a genius for thinking exactly the opposite things about humanity from what any one else in the world thinks.
Shortly after the war broke out, a typical Englishman of what is known as the old school, said: "If Germany should prove to be successful, Europe would be no place for a gentleman." That sums the matter up very adequately, I think.
There's been a veritable wave of the democratic idea all over England. The great difficulty just now is its lack of coherence. The idea is growing here, there and everywhere, but it hasn't concentrated its forces yet, and the grievances it wishes to combat are not neatly labeled and ready to be destroyed. It is not a clean-cut task to instil the really democratic idea into English people. The issues are very complicated and entangled. Our evils are not labeled. Everything seems vague. When the French idea came about, there was King Louis pleasantly concrete as the foe of the democratic idea. So they cut off his head and the crown with it. With us we are mistily sensible of great grievances needing to be destroyed, but as yet we only feel them. Our tyrants aren't visible. They exist mostly as impersonal groups, not as individuals. What we seem to need is a sort of detective-democracy that will seek out what needs to be destroyed and then destroy it. We'll see daylight no doubt when, the war gives us more time to look for it.
As for America, I am sorry to confess that whenever the average Englishman talks about America, his viewpoint becomes tainted by the same sort of German folly that makes Germans talk of us and themselves as one big family. We are likely to think of America as Anglo-Saxon, one of ourselves, chip off the old block, one blood and such like nonsense. It is true, of course, that America and England do speak the same language—almost, but when it comes to race there must be veritable cataracts of blood running thru American veins by now that can't by any stretch of imagination be called Anglo-Saxon. I'm afraid many of us in England will never rightly understand America until we begin by regarding her as a great nation—entirely dissociated from ourselves. Let us regard America as we might any other great nation speaking English, and we'll understand her better. It is very idiotic to adopt any maternal attitude toward the United States. We make much of "one blood, one tongue," and other accidental incidents whenever American policy dictates a course of action that appears favorable to the English mind. When, on the other hand, America, in pursuit of her own individual nationalism, commits some act we don't agree with, or does not commit some act we think she should have, we play the role of maternal scold. Too many Englishmen regard America as being in some mysterious way still bound up with ourselves by ties other than national friendship.
Whether America should do this or that in regard to Belgium, I don't know. I don't know enough of what her obligations were to pass an opinion. This much I do know, and that is that your President would have been foolish to bundle the American people into the hateful furnace of war just because many of my countrymen considered her bound to assist Belgium. England herself was in a very different position. She was in honor bound to help Belgium, and even if we hadn't gone to her assistance, we would have eventually been compelled to take a hand in the war for our own protection.
America is not in any such position, and why anyone should expect her to adopt the role of world-savior, I don't know. I have a great sympathy with America's difficulties in a most trying situation. I admire President Wilson very much, and I regret that both here, and at home in his own country, there has been a great deal of most unfair criticism, mostly due to cloudy vision.
He is paid by the people to protect the interests and welfare of the United States. He can't dip his country into Hell just to show the world he has a keen sense of being an individual savior. Why do people expect him to be a celestial person? There has been too much of this indignant rushing to protect the honor of others.
We know that America, like all other detached democracies, favors the Allies, but without cause why should they enter the bloody arena? I'm aware that there are many, many American citizens who think their country should take a hand, including your famous American citizen Roosevelt (altho perhaps he may consider that term an insufficient description for him). It's for Americans to decide what they should or should not do, isn't it?
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald