As I Was Saying/Essay II
|Essay I|| As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay II: About Loving Germans
WHY is it that those who admire foreign nations always ask us to admire them for the nastiest things about them? Those who abuse foreign nations are mostly mere fools, as distinct from those who abuse the abuses of foreign nations. That is quite allowable; but it is well to balance it by occasionally abusing the abuses of our own nation. In my own jog-trot journalistic existence, I have generally tried to keep this balance, and to distribute abuse and vituperation in such elegant and well-chosen proportions, that nobody can be offended or feel that he has been left out of the fun. Those who abuse abuses are right; and even those who stare at strange uses are not very wrong. The rude forefathers of the hamlet do not always mean to be rude. Unfamiliarity breeds contempt. But not the most contemptible sort of contempt. I mean the man who laughs at a _gendarme,_ when he has never in his life ventured to laugh at the much more pantomimic costume of a policeman. These people, in a sense, abuse foreign nations; but it is their great glory that they admit that they laugh at them because they do not understand them, and not because they pretend that they do. But neither of these two types, the reformer who rebukes on principle or the rustic who laughs out of mere surprise, throws any light on the problem of the third kind of critic, who concerns me just now. Why, I repeat, do those who urge us to love our enemies, or merely like our neighbours, seem to have no notion of what it is that men really love or like? Why do they always point out as supreme merits the things that most normal men, if they do not actually hate, tend more or less to dislike?
We all know that one of the real Opportunities of Travel is the chance of escaping the guide and being able to contradict the guide-book. And this really is a benefit that can only be obtained by travel. If you merely stay at home, you will probably read books, and books with all the prejudices of guide-books; if not, you will read newspapers, often containing pronouncements upon Europe or America far below the mental level of any tout who tries to get a tip by showing you round an Italian ruin. In short, we all know that the real pleasures of the tripper are those that are not supposed to be part of the trip; the small, touching, humanizing sights that really do tell us that all human beings are parts of one humanity; such as the domestic scene I beheld in the most Moslem part of Palestine, the episode of a Moslem woman shouting and yelling abuse of her husband across the breadth of a small lake, while the husband stood helpless and evidently unable to think of any repartee. This made me feel, with a warm touch of sentiment, that home is home everywhere, and is not so very much altered even where a home may be a harem. Now, you cannot arrange a tour with a view to little things like that. I could no more have planned that this particular woman should boil over at this particular moment than I could pay a few _lire_ to obtain an eruption of Vesuvius. But it was immeasurably more forcible and impressive than Vesuvius. For it is the little things and not the large things that touch this tricky international nerve which reminds us that we are all made on the same anatomical plan and that the Image of God is everywhere. What I complain of in the internationalist interpreters is that they seem to have no notion of what these small and attractive things are. Bring me the ordinary international pamphlet on the claims of Ruthenia, with maps and statistics and all the rest, and I shall probably end the perusal by hating the poor Ruthenians, whom I never saw and hardly ever heard of, simply because the international reconcilers do not understand why men hate or love.
I will take the hardest cases of the two nations with which, in a political sense, I am perhaps least in sympathy: Germany and Japan. The Germany praised by the Pro-Germans is much nastier than the Germany abused by the Anti-Germans. The former generally contrive to convey the impression of a human hive, of all horrible things, which very soon and very naturally becomes an inhuman hive. They give me stiff and bristling statistics about exports and imports, manufacture and machinery, strictly enforced regulations, very advanced scientific legislation, and everything else that stinks to heaven. They suggest that the German is alone industrious; by which they mean industrial. As a matter of fact, that industrial type is not generally any more industrious, if so much, as what we used to call the idle and lounging peasant of the South, who works hours before any of us dream of waking up, and sometimes hours after we go to bed; but rests in the heat of the middle of the day, not being a born fool. But, anyhow, in so far as it is true that the Germans are very industrious, did you ever hear of anybody loving anybody merely because he was industrious?
In short, it is thought an insult to call Germans sausages; but it is a compliment to call them sausage-machines. But many people like sausages, and nobody particularly likes sausage-machines. A British statesman, in the very middle of the war, solemnly told us that there are two Germanies: the bad Germany of despotism, militarism, and armed aristocracy; and the good Germany of science and commerce and chemicals used for various purposes. I remember thinking at the time, and even saying at the time, that I had much more sympathy with a soldier dying for the Kaiser than with an expert working for the Krupps. Again, one does not love experts; especially experts in poison-gas. One may fear them, and, in consequence, one may fight them. But international idealists are even now talking of Germany as the land of science and industry and technical improvement.
Now Germany is not as bad as all that. It has temptations of barbarism, and especially of mythology, but it has touches of the better mythology which is not a myth. My examples of small things would doubtless sound very small indeed. Summoned before the International Peace Conference, I should cause general disappointment if I said: "The Germans have produced one particular kind of Christmas Card which is unlike anything in the world. It really mingles the natural mystery of the forests with the preternatural mystery of the Christmas tree, and truly sets the Star of Bethlehem in a northern sky. To look at the best of these little pictures is to feel at once like a man who has received a sacrament and a child who has heard the whole of a fairy-tale. And when I look at those queer little coloured pictures, full of a sort of holy goblins, I _know_ there is something in Germany that can be loved, and that perhaps is not yet lost."
I have no space to say much about the parallel of Japan, but the moral, it may be noted, is the same. Publicists have sometimes praised Japan for possessing all the qualities of Prussia, as if Prussianism were a term of praise. But I once crossed the Atlantic and watched a little Japanese playing with his little goblins of children, and I have never been quite so Anti-Japanese since.
My phrase that the Germans have a weakness for Mythology, has been queried; but I do not use it as a mere term of abuse; for, indeed, I think I have a weakness for Mythology myself. Only I try not to regard my weakness as my strength. I could never read some huge, primitive myth about how the world was made out of a dead giant, the sky being his skull, or the sun and moon his eyes, or the sea his green blood, without wishing for one wild moment that I were the infant Hottentot or Eskimo who heard some such story from his grandmother and stood drinking it all in as innocently as I should like to do. I can never read of one of those baffling and fascinating totem-heroes who seems at once to be a man and a bald-headed eagle, or what not; and how he stole fire from the sun for the use of men, or cracked the sky to let in the upper sea, which is the rain, without wishing faintly that I were in the first morning of the world, when such things could be believed. Perhaps the Germans are still in the morning of the world. Perhaps there is that streak of truth in all their talk about their race as one descended from gods and heroes. I am well aware, however, that they have another side, which may seem paradoxically opposite; a literal and laborious side which deals with details very much in detail. And, lest some German professor should take my mythological weakness too seriously, I hasten to explain that there are no such myths as the two I have mentioned, though there are myths very similar. I made them up out of my own head. But the curious thing is that, in certain other departments, this is exactly what the Germans do.
There are certain primitive elements in the German people which are in truth faintly suggested in the very fact that they call the people a folk. To do it justice, it is a folk that is still producing folk-lore. A very agreeable product; but it must be admitted that, as in the case of the bald-headed eagle who cracked the sky, folk-lore is not always identical with fact. There are other elements that have this rather indescribable quality. We see it, for instance, in the particular _kind_ of unity which the Germans exhibit from time to time. It is not, despite all their discipline, merely a disciplined unity. It is a gregarious unity. Civilization, like religion, is a thing many people are explaining, in the hope of explaining away. These connect the Commonwealth with the Herd Instinct. But I think Germany is the only nation in which it is a Herd Instinct. In a word, there is something about them that is prehistoric. Even their learned professors, in a very special sense, are often prehistoric. I mean that, learned as they are, they seem never to have heard of history.
But I repeat that this quality is not in itself odious, but sometimes almost lovable. On the whole, Mythology is a much better thing than Propaganda. Mythology is simply believing whatever you can imagine. Propaganda is, more often, believing that other people will believe whatever you can invent. There is something more than a mere manufacture of lies about the unexhausted Teuton power in the production of myths. That is why I try to be polite to the German professor, and call him prehistoric, when ruder spirits might be content to call him unhistorical. But I take it as certain that the _spirit_ in the German way of telling the German story is entirely unhistorical. With all their external parade of science, their motive is not scientific. Their motive is that of a tribal tradition magnifying and exaggerating the heroes and victories of the tribe. Nobody denies that they have had heroes and victories; but the way of dealing with them is utterly out of proportion. It is quite natural that they should tell us how the spirited skirmish of Arminius cut off a few legions of Augustus. But to hear some of them telling it, one would think that Arminius had defeated the whole Roman Army and even menaced the whole Roman Empire. I doubt whether there was ever any moment in history when it could truly be said that the Teutons had conquered the Roman Empire. But it is idle to speculate about events of those remote times, when the whole point of the position is that the same thing is going on in our own time.
The extraordinary thing about Germany is that it can still produce modern myths like the ancient myths. There is something almost innocent in their spontaneity, and especially in their suddenness. They created out of nothing the story that all Teutonic barbarians, unlike all Celtic or Slavonic barbarians, were, for some mysterious reason, a race of golden-haired gods. They have created stories quite as stupendous within the last year or two. And, above all, they have credited what they created. The Teuton doubles the part of the creative poet and the credulous listener. He tells himself tales and believes them. He lives in a different world from ours; perhaps at once an older and a younger one. He explains to us, to some extent, how it was that primitive men could worship images that were obviously only imaginations. It does not matter, for the purposes of this argument, whether we think such a world of imagination lower or higher than reality. We have already heard the saying of a great German who must have really understood the Germans: "In the beginning God gave to the French the land and to the English the sea and to the Germans the clouds."
Thus there is a New Myth spread quite recently and rapidly over all Germany, almost in a few months. The New Myth is that Germany was never defeated in the Great War. You could not have a more astounding and catastrophic collision than that, between mythology and history. But the point is that the mythology is actually more modern than the history. All Germans apparently find it easy to believe it; though I can imagine few things more difficult to believe than a statement like that: that a great and somewhat arrogant Empire consented to sink the whole of its fleet and give up all its colonies, as well as nearly all its conquests in foreign countries, when it had not really been defeated. But this cloud, as it lies on the mind of a whole people, now looks as solid as a mountain. It may remain as a legend quite as fixed as that which makes Arminius rather more important than Augustus. The other part of the New Myth is that the complete surrender of all the German armies was somehow or other brought about by the Jews. I have never underrated the real problem of the international position of the Jews; but I should say that this was just about the sort of thing that the Jews alone could not possibly do. Judas could betray the Redeemer of the world; but he could hardly bribe Caesar to surrender the Empire of the world to the Parthians.
But the point is not that you and I could never believe it in a thousand years. The point is that the Germans themselves did not believe it until within about two years. There is no evidence that the average German, for the first five or six years after his defeat, had even the faintest doubt that he had been defeated. He might think he was unjustly defeated, or unjustly treated after defeat; and he would have a right to his opinion, though there are others whose opinion I think more sound. But most of such men would have thought it sheer madness to deny the very calamity from which they suffered. These people are not the only people among whom a theorist may throw out a theory that might well appear mad. But they are the only people among whom that theory can be instantly and universally believed. To make up history after it has happened, and to make it up all different, may seem to some to have something even wildly poetical and attractive about it. But in practical politics these immense international illusions are very dangerous; and the clouds in which these people live have broken before now about us, not only in rain, but in lightning and falling fire.