George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 21
The Volunteer Statesman

ONCE ASKED WHAT HE HAD DONE IN THE WAR OF 1914-1918, Shaw REPLIED THAT he had done everything he could, first to prevent, and then to stop, the bloody thing. In 1924, in response to a query of mine, he quizzically replied: "My opportunity was eighteen months before the war, when I showed how it might have been averted. I cannot help governments if they will not listen to me, or have not the strength of mind to act on my very mild suggestions." His actions and utterances on the subject have been almost universally misunderstood, and it is no easy matter to disentangle truth from falsehood. Long hours of conversation with him, the exchange of letters before, during and after the war, and painstaking study of virtually everything he has written on the subject have finally made clear to me Shaw's attitude and point of view. Far from being a defeatist as many charged, he was a bitter-ender, a Jusqu'- auboutist. Far from being a pacifist, he supported the war and, on three or four occasions, conspicuously served the British Empire. But his criticism was so fierce, his exposure of governmental pretence so drastic, his disloyalty to loyalty so pronounced that he came near writing his epitaph. England is undoubtedly the most liberal and tolerant nation in the world. The strain to which Shaw subjected England's patience is best proved by his own--of course "greatly exaggerated"--statement, that he narrowly escaped being hanged.

In the piping times of peace the British public laughed consumedly at this professional clown who made himself a motley to the view for their amusement. They grinned delightedly when Shaw declared his utter lack of patriotism, asserted that he was as little loyal to the land of his nativity as to the land of his adoption which had procured its ruin; and quoted with evident relish Dr. Johnson's definition of patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. But when the torrent of war burst upon the world and Shaw continued to repudiate the claims of blind and unreasoning patriotism, the British public were first astounded, then indignant, finally horrified. During the War of 1914- 1918 there were only two international publicists who caught the ear of the world and refused to yield to the psychopathia of war-mania and blood-madness: Maximilian Harden and Bernard Shaw. On certain points, it seems to me that Shaw was disingenuous, wrong-headed and impossibilist; but in the main his contentions were sound, sensible, and free from illusions. To violate

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