Pacifists failed Vera's Britain

November 24, 2016 23:23

Vera Brittain holds a small but secure place in the 20th-century history of English letters. Her memoir Testament of Youth (1933) tells of the costs of war and the imperative of peace-making. She knew tragedy from the deaths in the First World War of her fiancé, her brother and two close friends.

The new film adaptation of the book, depicting the war through the author's eyes, will bring her readers in a new generation. What they will not learn is where Brittain's pacifist convictions eventually led her.

British pacifism was a widespread cause in the 1930s - and an utterly trivial one in the Second World War, when it was obvious that Hitler could not be negotiated with but only defeated. As the peace movement became politically irrelevant (and in fact treated with a good deal of tolerance by the authorities), Brittain and her fellow campaigners became shriller. In a letter sent to campaigners on 3 May 1945, Brittain maintained that the discovery of the Nazi death camps was being publicised by the Allies "partly, at least, in order to divert attention from the havoc produced in German cities by allied obliteration bombing".

I found this reference some years ago in the standard work Semi-Detached Idealists: The British Peace Movement and International Relations, 1854-1945 by Martin Ceadel. Professor Ceadel is a sympathetic observer of the peace movement but a scrupulous historian who records unflinchingly this appalling remark.

I have no doubt of Brittain's humanitarian impulse and selfless work for peace; but the fact is that her politics were grievously mistaken in the face of Nazi tyranny and she lacked the self-critical faculties to acknowledge this. She thereby failed in an elementary test of judgment: the terrible violence inflicted on Germany's civilian population, in a just war against barbarism, was not the moral equivalent of the systematic destruction of European Jewry. Not at all. Not even remotely.

Brittain was strikingly incapable of recognising real evil

That was where Britain's peace movement, and its most famous exponent, ended up. There was, as George Orwell pointed out in 1941, some overlap in membership between the British peace movement and British fascism. Canon Stuart Morris, who served as chairman of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union (PPU), was simultaneously a member of an openly pro-Nazi organisation in the 1930s called The Link.

As late as 1943, a virulent antisemite, the Marquess of Tavistock, won election to the PPU's national council. In the pacifist journal Peace News, of October 30 1942, he explained Nazi aggression in Europe by invoking "the very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance when exploiting Germany's financial difficulties, by their associations with commercialised vice, and by their monopolisation of certain professions". (That, too, is quoted in Ceadel's volume.)

I don't claim Brittain was part of this sinister trend. I charge with her something different, and inherent in an absolutist pacifism: she was so alert to the imperfections, and even the crimes, of her own side that she was strikingly incapable of understanding the nature of real, remorseless evil. Her book, Seed of Chaos (1944) condemned the Allies' obliteration bombing. When it was issued (under the title Stop Massacre Bombing) in the US, William Shirer - the journalist who wrote the classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich - charged her with repeating Nazi propaganda. Brittain's campaigning marked a sad degeneration of a powerful moral witness. Recall that when you see the film.

November 24, 2016 23:23

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