Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Full Title: The Appetite of Tyranny: Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian
Alternate Titles: The Appetite of Tyranny combines two previous books, both of which were very short: The Barbarism of Berlin (1914), which was a response to the July Crisis, and Letters to an Old Garibaldian (March 1915).
Genre: Non-fiction, journalism, wartime essays.
The Appetite of Tyranny is a brief, thoughtful book, but not always measured in its tone. This little book addresses what Chesterton sees as the roots of German aggression that resulted in World War I. Although at the outset it is supposed to be reasoning against German ideology and policy, the book devolves into criticisms of the German people themselves.
The essay was published in 1914—directly in the wake of the July Crisis that led into World War I—so it is understandably polemic in tone. Chesterton sees the crisis as resulting from lack of faithfulness among German leadership on two points: keeping their word (they had promised not to invade Belgium), and maintaining reciprocity. Of course, the war itself would probably not be described so unilaterally in most history books.
This book is not really what we would call “classic” Chesterton, so I don’t recommend it for devotional or leisurely reading, unless you are highly interested in World War I. I consider World War I to be an understandably weak period in Chesterton’s writing.
Chesterton is never concerned solely with the surface of the issue; he is always hunting for some principle behind the circumstances at play, so that he can better understand the motives and outcomes. For the most part, that is the case in The Appetite of Tyranny (though probably less so in The Crimes of England or Lord Kitchener).
He begins by seeking to demonstrate that “civilization,” in terms of technological advancement, has made the Germans no less “barbarous.” He argues that intellect and technology may only increase their evil:
If their cities soared higher than their flying ships, if their trains travelled faster than their bullets, we should still call them barbarians.
This is the kind of argument used, for instance, in his novel The Trees of Pride. But Chesterton’s argument weakens as he resorts to less logical attacks on the German people.
The most interesting points in this little book, I thought, were those that presaged the development of the Nazi movement. From the beginning of World War I, Chesterton openly mocked German “race theorists” and the superiority complex that he saw as fueling—or, at least, excusing—German aggression. He quotes a Professor Ostwald of Berlin University as saying:
Science combined with organisation makes us terrible to our opponents and ensures a German future for Europe. (p. 48)
Chesterton goes on to recount an argument by a German writer that Leonardo da Vinci was German! These examples are interesting in retrospect as exemplifying the kind of ideology that preceded Nazism. Chesterton was relatively consistent in this area as an outspoken critic of eugenics and related ideologies.
As the essay continues, he slips into equating German politics with the German people as a whole, and commits several slurs which are difficult to excuse over a century later. Surely, when they were written, the English would not have thought twice about his generalizations, reeling as Europe was in the shock of the Great War. To my mind, he somewhat repeats the error of the Germans by insulting them as Germans.
I should add, even if he weren’t English, Chesterton’s sympathies would almost necessarily on the French side, the French being predominantly Catholic. He often speaks fondly of his travels in France; I am not sure if he ever visited Germany, and he had little regard for Luther.
This and several of his other books of the time period are mainly responses to the needs of the time, and haven’t aged nearly as well as most of his works. Although it contains a few interesting historical notes and aphorisms here and there (several given below), The Appetite of Tyranny definitely should not be the first (or even third) Chesterton book you pick up.
Related Works: Lord Kitchener, The Crimes of England.
“Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things.”
“The collapse of German philosophy always occurs at the beginning, rather than the end of an argument.”
“The danger of the Pruss is that he is prepared to fight for old errors as if they were new truths.”
“The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.”
“The promise, like the wheel, is unknown in Nature: and is the first mark of man. Referring only to human civilisation, it may be said with seriousness that in the beginning was the Word. The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known.” (in an argument about German faithlessness)
“He cannot get outside the idea that he, because he is he and not you, is free to break the law; and also to appeal to the law.”