Christopher Dawson worried about the actual physical changes wrought by World War II, but he worried far more about the moral changes. He lamented that even the democracies of the United Kingdom and the United States had come to resemble Nazi Germany far more than their nineteenth-century historical selves did.
Throughout his writing career, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) did what he could to avoid writing on politics and political subjects. Yet, given the vast swamping of everything by politics during the interwar years, he felt he had little choice but to write on politics. He preferred to write about history, education, humanism, culture, music, art, economics, philosophy, great books, religion, sociology, psychology—well, anything but politics. Yet, the political and the ideological took over in the aftermath of World War I. And not only did Dawson find it a necessity to write about politics to maintain his standing as a writer, but he also found it his duty to present a vision of politics that transcended the simple and simplistic divisions of Left and Right. Despite his own hesitations and trepidations, Dawson wrote a series of books that were—then and now—mind-bogglingly good about politics: The Modern Dilemma (1932); Religion and the Modern State (1935); Beyond Politics (1939); and, his best book of all, The Judgment of the Nations (1942).
During the Second World War, Dawson continued to write on politics, though he never again published a book on the subject. He did, however, publish a myriad of essays. He worried about the actual physical changes wrought by the war, but he worried far more about the moral changes. Three things mattered most in Dawson’s estimation. First, the interwar years and the war itself, he lamented, had released “deeper and stronger forces of hatred and conflict” than the world had yet seen.* No peace—whether a total peace or a partial one—could readily heal such forces of hatred. Second, total war had changed everything, culturally and materially. “War absorbs the whole energy of society and transforms the life of the civilian,” he wrote, “as drastically as that of the soldier.” To be sure, Dawson had already identified what C. Wright Mills and Dwight D. Eisenhower would call the “Military Industrial Complex.” And third, all participants in the war—axis and allied—had resorted to the complete centralization of power to achieve victory. “There is comparatively little difference in this respect between a modern democracy or a modern dictatorship,” he lamented, with the modern democracies of Britain and the United States exercising “a tremendous power over the details of the lives of its individual members such as no ancient oriental despotism, however powerful and absolute in its claims, ever possessed.”
Each of these three things, Dawson argued, contributes to a fourth and greater problem—the loss of nuance in society, politics, economics, education: Everything—meaning every single thing—had become subsumed by the “total.”
The irony, Dawson noted, is that the allies, ostensibly at least, waged their war against fascism. What is this thing the enemy propagated through extreme violence? It is, Dawson stated, “an attempt to transform the modern society into a purely dynamic organism, and to fuse community, party and state as a unitary mass driven by the aggressive will to power.” Dawson cautioned against the identification of fascism with authority. Instead, he claimed, one must identify fascism with power. Authority, as opposed to power, was the proper acquiescence every society (and its members) gave to those who ordered and secured a healthy society. Thus, as examples, a judge had authority because he decided things with wisdom; a teacher had authority because she taught her students the good, the true, and the beautiful; a policeman had authority because he upheld the law. Authority, as properly understood, was vital to a free society as were natural rights, Dawson argued. Authority, when used well, protected social freedoms, justice, and law. When violated, though, authority easily became power, a “poison” that seeps through societies, destroying all that it cannot corrupt. Power is, in essence, raw and naked force.
With the “total” aspects perpetrated by the war itself, even the democracies of the United Kingdom and the United States had come to resemble Nazi Germany far more than their nineteenth-century historical selves did. Add to this the fact that the United States and Great Britain had tolerated an ally as brutal as Stalin’s Soviet Union, and that the façade of even freedom should be utterly torn away.
In an attempt to prove to their own populations that they had not succumbed to fascism, the United States and Great Britain had cried loudly and obnoxiously the words and phrases: “Rights of Man” and “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Yet, this was nothing other than propaganda, an adulteration of something noble. Essentially, Dawson claimed in Burkean fashion that the concept of natural rights came from the hard work of everyday, average citizens, not in the decrees of legislative bodies. Natural rights “became inflated and cheapened in a million political speeches and newspaper articles until it ceased to have real meaning and value, so that today Fascists and Communists unite in pouring scorn on [them] as an exploded, bourgeois capitalist myth.”
Instead, Dawson warned, “the conception of freedom is in fact inseparable from the conception of personality which lies at the root of the whole Western achievement. In our own case, it has been just as important for English literature, English philosophy and English religion, as it has been for English institutions and English political life.” In other words, the “total” aspects of the Second World War had not just transformed the United Kingdom and the United States into something that their nineteenth-century selves would not recognize, but they had also turned the two countries into something that no one in the history of Western civilization would understand.
It is worth remembering that Dawson despised Nazism and communism, and he supported the war effort of the English-speaking powers to protect Poland and the oppressed nations of Eastern and Central Europe. He was certainly no radical or “isolationist” but, like his contemporaries C.S. Lewis and Friedrich Hayek, he knew with certainty that a war that turned love into hate could only serve the enemy itself. “It is no use driving out the Nazis if they leave behind them an inheritance of racial persecution, concentration camps and government by secret police, and there are ugly possibilities in the present situation which it would be foolish to ignore.”
*All quotations in this essay come from Christopher Dawson, “Peace Aims and Power Politics,” Dublin Review (April 1944), pp. 97-102.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Canadian Armour Passing Through Ortona” by Charles Comfort (1900-1994), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.