Testamentary incapacity

Vera Brittain was the English writer whose memoir Testament of Youth (the first of three such memoirs by her) became an immediate best-seller upon its publication in Great Britain in 1933. Brittain wrote of her experience working as a nurse tending to the wounded in World War I and the tragic deaths of of her brother as well as her fiancee and friends in the conflict. The book has remained in print ever since its original publication. In 1936 Brittain publicly avowed her pacifism.

The publication of Brittain’s memoir in 1933 perfectly coincided with the temper of the times. In January the Oxford Union voted 275-153 to approve the motion: “That this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country.” The motion became known as the Oxford oath.

Winston Churchill was not amused. While others counseled that it be dismissed as youthful folly, he declined to ignore the proceedings at Oxford. Rather, he presciently declared it “a very disquieting and disgusting symptom” and proceeded to explain why it troubled him (as Martin Gilbert puts it in The Prophet of Truth):

My mind turns across the narrow waters of [the] Channel and the North Sea, where great nations stand determined to defend their national glories or national existence with their lives. I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youths marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland. I think of Italy, with her ardent Fascisti, her renowned Chief, and stern sense of national duty. I think of France, anxious, peace-loving, pacifist to the core, but armed to the teeth and determined to survive as a great nation in the world.

One can almost feel the curl of contempt upon the lips of the manhood of these peoples when they read this message sent out by Oxford University in the name of young England.

In the (beautifully) filmed and moving (if slow) version of her memoir released last week (trailer below), Brittain’s announcement of her pacifism is presented as the glorious culmination of her experience. Nothing that has happened between then and now deters BBC Films and its partners from peddling Brittain’s pacifism straight. The film ends with her declaration opposing war, followed by text attesting to the success of her book before the credits roll.

I can’t even find a review that takes up the rest of the story, or that supplies any context that might detract from Brittain’s “testament.” The necessary changes being made, Churchill’s comments still apply, but we have to return to Churchill on our own.


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