Vera Brittain versus George Orwell

“Vera Brittain versus George Orwell” By Richard Westwood.

In 2006, the philosopher A C Grayling published a book entitled Among the Dead Cities, which he described as an attempt “to come to judgement” on the role of Bomber Command during World War II, in particular the “Gomorrah” raids against Hamburg of July 1943 were examined.  By and large Grayling’s supposedly magisterial pronouncements were received with indifference and scepticism by those reviewers who knew anything about the Bomber offensive.  However, in the course of putting his case Grayling did disinter the remains of a spat between two people who were to become, in their different ways, icons of the left in this country – Vera Brittain and George Orwell.

In April of 1944 Orwell had reviewed in his ‘As I Please’ column in Tribune, Brittain’s anti-bombing pamphlet Seed of Chaos in which she argued for restrictions on the extent and intended targets of allied bombing, whilst agreeing that the war against Hitler had to be won.  In Orwell’s opinion any proposal to limit the means of waging war whilst supporting the need to defeat Nazi Germany was “sheer Humbug”. Brittain responded to him in a letter to Tribune in which she stated that it was perfectly possible to want to win the war without agreeing with every excess proposed by ‘war makers’.  What she meant by ‘war makers’ is clear from the text of Seed of Chaos; the British and American governments and their respective air forces.           

In the spring of 1945 Orwell was sent by The Observer as a correspondent, following closely behind the allied forces as they fought their way into western Germany.

This was not an easy time for Orwell personally; his London flat had recently been wrecked by a V-1 and tragically, his wife Eileen had died undergoing a hysterectomy on the 29th of March.  Nevertheless Orwell chose to return to Germany rather than remain in England.  He filed a number of reports, one of which was published in The Observer on Sunday 8th April.  It was entitled ‘Future of a ruined Germany’ and vividly described the devastation wrought by the allied air forces.  However, in the course of a relatively brief article Orwell went to the trouble of justifying the use of bombing as a means of waging war, comparing it favourably with what he termed “normal” or “legitimate” warfare.  He deployed a line of argument which might seem somewhat cold-blooded to a 21st-century sensibility: “a bomb kills a casual cross-section of the population. Whereas the men killed in battle are exactly the ones that the community can least afford to lose.”

Orwell also speculated that there would probably be an outpouring of sympathy for the blitzed Germans from the British public – once the Germans were safely defeated.

In this short piece Orwell was repeating views that he had first expressed just under a year previously, during the exchange with Brittain on the subject of the bombing of German cities.  Now, when faced with direct personal experience of the effect and consequences of such bombing, Orwell, to judge by what he wrote, did not change his opinion as to whether the allies should have used such a means of prosecuting the war, and crucially, he made this position very clear.

Towards the end of ‘Future of a ruined Germany’, Orwell shifts his focus to “the frightful destructiveness of modern war” and the long period of reconstruction that lay ahead.  He begins the final paragraph with the arresting sentence: “To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation as a whole.”  Clearly, he is referring not just to the work of the allied airforces, but to the whole gamut of destruction inherent in modern warfare, as subsequent sentences show: “The desolation extends all the way from Brussels to Stalingrad.  Where there has been ground fighting the destruction is even more thorough than where there has merely been bombing.”

In the earlier exchange with Brittain, on the ethics of bombing, Orwell dismissed the idea of fighting the war with regard to “the opinion of posterity” and went on to state that there was “something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument (of policy) and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features.”

Whatever one’s view as to the efficacy or morality of bombing it is clear that writing as he was from the midst of war, Orwell’s viewpoint was sincere, not lightly arrived at, and almost certainly reflected the majority opinion of his fellow citizens at the time.

An interesting, if trivial, footnote to the history of the Second World War then? Which could be summed up as: ‘George Orwell did not change his mind on the subject of the bombing of cities, even though he was in a position where he might well have done so.’

What is especially intriguing about this piece of forgotten journalism is that in 1957, some seven years after Orwell’s death, Vera Brittain published a volume of autobiography, Testament of Experience, in which she refers to the exchanges with Orwell on the specific subject of “obliteration” bombing.  Presumably Brittain had access to the full text of Orwell’s short piece, so it seems reasonable to conclude that she decided to quote selectively in order to ‘win’ her argument with Orwell, in retrospect and when he could not respond.  Did it work?  Well yes it did, in that a number of people have repeated and elaborated on Brittain’s mendacity.  For example her biographers, Berry and Bostridge (1995, 2001) and of course AC Grayling (2006) both suggest that Brittain’s view regarding  the bombing of Germany was vindicated by the apparent change of opinion, in the face of experience as it were, by Orwell. As with all the best lies it is plausible; Orwell could well have changed his mind.  Also, more subtly, the reader might expect Orwell to have altered his view, especially in light of the post-war revulsion that was felt towards the bombing of civilians.

It is worth looking in detail at the lengths Brittain goes to in order to suborn Orwell onto her side.  First, she sets the scene; it is the spring of 1945, she is at her desk with news clippings in front of her from various correspondents who had followed the advancing allies into Germany, all of them expressing horror and distaste at the fearful havoc the allied air forces had wrought. Then she turns to Orwell: “Even George Orwell who had dismissed Seed of Chaos with contempt the previous year, now expressed deep misgivings in The Observer for April 8th… ‘The people of Britain have never felt easy about the bombing  of civilians… but what they have still not grasped – thanks to their own comparative immunity – is the frightful destructiveness of modern war and the long period of impoverishment that now lies ahead of the world as a whole . To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.’”  And there she leaves it; the reader is left to conclude that Orwell, upon experiencing the grim reality for himself, had altered his view point and, although she does not actually say so, had come to agree with her.  This would be fine if it were true.  Now, to show the care Brittain takes to misrepresent Orwell, here is her quotation of him in bold, embedded within the original wording of the article.

“Bombing is not especially inhumane. War itself is inhumane and the bombing plane, which is used to paralyse industry and transport rather than to kill human beings, is a relatively civilised weapon. ‘Normal’ or ‘legitimate’ warfare is just as destructive of inanimate objects and enormously more so of human lives.   Moreover, a bomb kills a casual cross- section of the population.  Whereas the men killed in battle are exactly the ones that the community can least afford to lose. The people of Britain have never felt easy about the bombing of civilians and no doubt they will be ready enough to pity the Germans as soon as they have definitely defeated them. But what they still have not grasped – thanks to their own comparative immunity – is the frightful destructiveness of modern war and the long period of impoverishment that now lies ahead of the world as a whole. To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation as a whole. It is not only Germany that has been blitzed. The desolation extends all the way from Brussels to Stalingrad.”

Before asking why Brittain carried out this apparently childish piece of subterfuge it is worth examining the excisions in detail, for although the motivation behind them may be unworthy, she has taken great care in order to produce an exact result.  First, she frames Orwell’s comments by stating that he had dismissed her pamphlet Seed of Chaos with contempt the previous year (although earlier in Testament of Experience she said that it had received no reviews in anything other than `specialist publications in this country ’). Of course, what Orwell had actually done via his regular As I Please column in Tribune was to put his finger on the central weakness of Brittain’s case; namely, that faced with the unique evil of Nazism, there was no real possibility of fighting a limited war. It is this which seems to have enraged Brittain, for she did not regard the Nazis as being morally any worse than the western Allies and she apparently retained this view even after the evidence of Nazi atrocities became incontrovertible with the liberation of the Concentration Camps. Secondly, Brittain excises Orwell’s robust defence of bombing cities (there would be little point in her quoting him if she did not) and cuts any reference to the need to defeat Germany. Then she lops three words off one sentence; “To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation as a whole.” The effect is subtle but definite, instead of doubting the continuity of civilisation on all sides; it becomes specifically the civilisation of those who ruined the cities of Germany from the air that is called into question. Finally, by omitting his reflections on the extent of the devastation “from Brussels to Stalingrad” Brittain implies that Orwell was only referring to damage to German cities, caused by aerial bombardment.

Why did she misrepresent Orwell in this fashion? The answer is probably the prosaic, ‘because she could’. With him dead and 1957 being in the pre-internet age, there was little prospect of anyone else noticing her deception. On the ‘moral touchstone’ question of the bombing of civilians she was able to demonstrate that she had been right and the great George Orwell wrong. Moreover Orwell was shown to have moved to her position. Perfect. Also Vera Brittain, who regarded herself as nobody’s inferior intellectually, probably took great satisfaction from slyly altering the historical record, as far as the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four was concerned. By the simple expedient of leaving out a few words here and there, her version would triumph, no need for the vast fact-altering apparatus of The Ministry of Truth. 

And there the matter might well have rested except that Brittain’s biographers Berry and Bostridge in their Vera Brittain, A life, nearly forty years on from the publication of Testament of Experience, picked up on her reference to Orwell, repeated, simplified and strengthened it by writing “Orwell would undergo something of a change of heart after visiting Germany as a war correspondent…”. What is crucial here of course is that the biographers have assumed exactly what Brittain wanted her readers to assume; that Orwell had moved to her point of view on the subject of area bombing. Of course they could easily have checked the original source of Brittain’s quotation from The Observer of April 8th, 1945. If they had checked, they would have seen that there had been no “change of heart” on Orwell’s part regarding the bombing of cities. More recently in 2006, AC Grayling in his Among the Dead Cities makes much the same claim about Orwell’s supposed alteration of opinion ; he writes “in what looks like a change of mind” and then goes on to iterate the Berry and Bostridge version, which was taken from Brittain’s  mendacious account. Now Professor Grayling, who is described on his book’s jacket as ‘One of this country’s leading intellectuals’, should surely have checked the original source of Orwell’s short despatch; particularly as the entire article was reprinted by The Observer and available on-line from May 2005, however according to his footnotes he did not do so, preferring instead to rely on the Berry and Bostridge book’s account, not even Brittain’s version (still less Orwell’s). This seems strange, given that he rehearses the wartime dispute between Brittain and Orwell extensively in his book, and in particular highlights the “change of mind” on Orwell’s part as a major plank in his argument against the morality of area bombing. Indeed, without his being able to present Brittain as having bested Orwell on this particular question whilst the war was still going on, Among the Dead Cities becomes little more than partisan criticism of the Bomber offensive, delivered with the benefit of hindsight .Grayling may well be a leading intellectual but on this evidence he is certainly no scholar. Also it is worth noting that his repetition of Brittain’s misrepresentation of Orwell certainly seems to have achieved the effect that Brittain intended, because Alex Butterworth in reviewing Among the Dead Cities in The Observer, comments approvingly that Orwell, having seen the bombed cities for himself, had changed his mind!

How would Orwell have reacted to being misrepresented in this way? Given the importance he placed upon maintaining the veracity of an objective historical record as a minimum pre-requisite for a civilised society, he would probably have been furious. Doubtless Brittain’s defenders would argue that once the ‘truth’ of the full horror of the Bomber offensive had sunk in Orwell would surely have altered his opinion. Against this we have the fact that up until his death in London in 1950 Orwell did not publish anything to indicate that he had altered his viewpoint. Moreover his pre- war and wartime writings indicate that his views were deep rooted and not lightly arrived at, as early as 1938 following his experiences fighting in the Spanish civil war he wrote, “You cannot be objective about an aerial torpedo. And the horror we feel of these things has led to this conclusion: if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother. The only apparent alternatives are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with lumps of thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no one has suggested a practicable way out.” It is clear from this that Orwell was perfectly well aware of the likely consequences of dropping bombs on urban areas and would not have countenanced this course of action, except that in his opinion, the alternative was worse; and it makes Brittain’s implication of a lack of ability on his part to empathise, until he had seen for himself, even more risible. At the time of the clash with Brittain, in a letter to the then pacifist John Middleton Murry in August 1944, Orwell stated, “You must not think that because I ‘support’ the war and don’t disapprove of bombing I am in favour of reprisals, making Germany pay, etc. You may not understand this, but I don’t think it matters killing people so long as you do not hate them. I also think that there are times when you can only show your feelings of brotherhood for somebody else by killing him, or trying to…There has been very little popular resistance to this war, and also very little hatred. It is a job that has to be done.”

Orwell was certainly aware that his views could easily be seen, especially amongst left wing circles, as  jingoistic and open to misinterpretation; in an ‘As I Please’ column of  July 1944 he writes, “Contrary to what some of my correspondents seem to think, I have no enthusiasm for air-raids, either ours or the enemy’s. Like a lot of other people in this country, I am growing definitely tired of bombs. But I do object to the hypocrisy of accepting force as an instrument (of policy) while squealing against this or that individual weapon…”

Of course, having established that Orwell had a robust and consistent view regarding the bombing of Germany and that Brittain, whilst not approving of waging total war even against the Nazis, had no scruples about ensuring that her version of events won the peace as it were; the question of who was more morally correct at the time, Brittain or Orwell, becomes an extremely interesting one and would certainly seem to provide a fit subject for further investigation.

By Richard Westwood. First published in August 2011 in Tribune in an article entitled “The Battle of Vera Brittain versus George Orwell”

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