VERA BRITTAIN
a short biography

 
       
 

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE

 

Some of the 73,000 names of men killed in the battles of the Somme who's boies have not been found.


Vera spent most of the war in London, enduring like everyone else the disruption, food shortages, air raids, exhaustion, anxiety, and lack of sleep. She also visited PPU groups around the country, especially those in devastated cities such as Coventry and Plymouth. Perhaps her experiences of bombing gave her even more inspiration as she embarked on her most famous, and most controversial, campaign.

 
       

This was against ‘saturation bombing’: the wholesale bombardment of German cities in order to destroy them, civilian populations and all, as a way of forcing the Nazi government to give in. Vera was an active member of the Bombing Restriction Committee, set up in 1942, the year in which RAF fighting policy was changed from ‘precision bombing’ to ‘area bombing’. In one of her Letters, Vera said the British should decide whether ‘we want the government to continue to carry out, through its Bomber Command, a policy of murder and massacre in our name. Has any nation the right to make its young men the instruments of such a policy?’

In 1944 she published her book ‘Seed of Chaos: What Mass Bombing Really Means’, in which she provided eye-witness reports of its effects. She vividly pressed home her argument: there was no evidence that the war would be shortened by such destruction - in fact its victims were more likely to want revenge. In any case, if the military intention was to limit slaughter and destruction by bringing the war to a quick end, it was senseless and illogical to try to do it by adding yet more slaughter and destruction to the already horrifying toll.

The response to ‘Seed of Chaos’ in Britain and America was immediate: Vera became the focus of a rising tide of anger and abuse. With characteristic spirit she said: ‘when people abuse you and defend themselves, you know you have got under their skin and uncovered a bad conscience!’ But as pacifists have discovered throughout their history, their views may also be heard and praised, and sometimes by unlikely listeners. One military expert wrote to Vera to tell her of his ‘profound respect for your courage in upholding claims for human decency in a time when war fever is raging’.

Her work did not stop when the war ended. Vera was one of the first people to point out publicly that it was unjust for the whole German nation to be collectively punished for Nazism: after all, many German non-Jews had protested against the regime and had also been sent to the concentration- and death-camps. She also showed how the Nazis’ worst crimes against humanity had actually been made possible by the war. (It was discovered that Vera, too, had been unpopular with the Nazis - whom her abusers had accused her and other pacifists of supporting. Her name had been entered in the Gestapo’s ‘Black Book’, which listed 2,820 people to be arrested at once if Britain was successfully invaded. Pacifism was seen by the Nazis as a very real threat.)

Vera continued to work for the PPU, and was its chairperson from 1949 until 1951. At this point (she was now approaching 60) she felt she had done all she could for ‘organised’ peace work. Now, with ‘the same principles but different approaches’ she wanted to return single-mindedly to writing. Her ‘Testament of Experience’, describing her life - and her work for peace - was published in 1957. She also continued to write articles about major issues, and she was a regular contributor to ‘Peace News’, the PPU’s newspaper. She wrote in support of such ideas and projects as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; independence for colonised countries; the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (‘Peace News’ was banned in South Africa as a result); and political nonviolent protest as taught by Gandhi in India.

After a fall in 1966 Vera was never really well again, and in 1970 she died. A memorial service was held for her at St Martin-in-the-Fields, crowded with family, friends, and people from all the organisations she had worked with and for. Her daughter(Liberal politician Shirley Williams) said that when Vera died ‘she believed that as a writer she had been forgotten, the fading voice of a dying generation’. But in less than ten years Vera Brittain’s work, and her courageous personality, were being rediscovered. ‘Testament of Youth’ was made into a hugely popular television drama series, and hasn’t been out of print since. Indeed, it is now on school and college reading lists everywhere. Vera would be delighted, not only because her book is so appreciated, but also because it’s one of the growing number of recommended books which warn us all against the grief and horrors of war

 
   

     

     
         
 

 

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