What would you do if your homeland was invaded?
I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example.That is the reply Benjamin Britten gave to a tribunal for the registration of conscientious objectors in 1942 when asked "What would you do if Britain was invaded?" I was reminded of it when researching my recent article on Marco Pallis, who was an authority on both Tibetan Buddhism and early music, and, together with Britten, a champion of Purcell. In his best-selling book Peaks and Lamas, which was written in 1939, Pallis tells this story about the Sakyas, the ethnic group of which Gautama Buddha was a member which inhabited the foothills of the Himalayas.
News was brought to them of an impending attack by a hostile tribe and it was debated anxiously whether resistance should be offered or not. Eventually they decided that, as followers of [Buddhist] Doctrine, they were debarred from offering armed resistance, but must welcome the invaders as friends, so they threw down their arms... The Tibetans, however, not being sentimentalists, admit that the story of the Sakyas ends as it might very well end in any similar case - every convinced pacifist must face the possibility: the enemy arrived and the Sakyas were massacred to a man, the gutters of their streets ran with blood, and their race was blotted out from mankind.However Pallis, as a committed Buddhist and pacifist, then justifies the non-violence of the Sakyas:
Some people may argue that the sacrifice of the Sakyas was in vain; but, viewed in relation to the law of Cause and Effect, the chain of consequences derived from their brave refusal to compromise, even if all memory of the deed should fail, would add itself to the general store of merit on the cosmic plane, the Karman of the Universe as a whole; and in the second place, as a recorded historical event, the slaughter of the Sakyas, might, by force of example, affect many individual Karmans. To the Sakyas themselves there accrued no obvious profit; that is as it should be. Also we must remember that their own personalities were dissoluble; it was idle for them to trouble their heads with hopes of rewards, or regrets. The fruit of the Sakyas' sacrifice was nothing less than the Enlightenment and ultimate Liberation of all creatures.In his centenary year Britten is being venerated as a man as well as a musician, with, in particular, his role as a pacifist being put under the spotlight. If the Nazis had invaded Britain and others had followed Britten's lead, our dark satanic mills would have been joined by extermination camps. Readers will know I am a great admirer of Britten's music and that I respect his pacifist beliefs which he expressed in masterpieces such as his War Requiem - beliefs which, incidentally, were based on Quaker rather than Buddhist teachings - and I also have a high regard for Marco Pallis' scholarship. But I cannot accept that letting the Nazi invader into Britain and setting a good example would have contributed to the Enlightenment and ultimate Liberation of all creatures.
Britten witnessed the full extent of the Nazi horrors when he visited Belsen with Yehudi Menuhin in July 1945. In fairness, the extent of those horrors, or details of how the Vichy regime in Occupied France had "set a good example" by shipping Jews and other "undesirables" to the death camps, was not known when Britten appeared before the tribunal for conscientious objectors in 1942, or when Marco Pallis wrote Peaks and Llamas in 1939 (although the book was extensively revised in 1949). But warnings had been sounded about the potential genocide of the Jews as early as 1935. Significantly, one of the first warning voices was that of Varian Fry, who later masterminded Alma Mahler's escape from Vichy France. Fry had interviewed Harvard educated Ernst Hanfstaengl - who later became Hitler's court composer - for the New York Times in 1935, and reported how he had been told by Hanfstaengl that "that the 'radicals' among the Nazi Party leaders intended to 'solve the Jewish problem' by the physical extermination of the Jews". There were not many voices raised against the Nazis at this time, but Fry was strident in his early denouncements of the Hitler regime which included advocating a U.S. boycott of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Rosamund Strode, who worked closely with Britten in his final years, expressed the view that "he was a non-political animal, like a lot of artists". But, despite this, it is likely that Britten knew of Varian Fry's prescient warnings about Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews. The composer lived in North America from 1939 to 1942, and Fry was based in New York until he moved to Marseille in August 1940 to establish his escape network. Although there is no evidence that Britten met Fry, the two moved in the same circles in New York. Fry was a close friend of New York Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein - they had been joint founders of an influential literary magazine while at Harvard - and W.H. Auden had introduced Britten to Kirstein. In 1941 Britten created his Matinées Musicales from the Rossini originals for the New York City Ballet, and dedicated the work to Kirstein who went on choreograph the Frank Bridge Variations and Les Illuminations. Britten's biographer Humphrey Carpenter tells of how at the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938 Britten was experiencing "jitters...over the International Situation", so it seems improbable that he could have been isolated from concerns about Nazi extermination plans circulating in New York's artistic community a few years later.
This year we are celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth, and composer anniversaries should be times of reassessment as well as celebration. So, based on both research and reflection, my personal position has changed, and I now believe that Britten was brave but wrong in his uncompromising advocacy of non-violence, an advocacy which continued after the horrors of Belsen and elsewhere were revealed. And I hope that this anniversary year will provide others with an opportunity for, most importantly, a celebration of his peerless music, but also an opportunity for an open-minded reassessment of his pacifism.
* Benjamin Britten: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
* Peaks and Lamas by Marco Pallis
* A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry by Sheila Isenberg
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