'Churchill & Orwell' profiles two icons in the fight against totalitarianism

Historian Thomas Ricks asserts that, despite their differences, a deep commitment to human freedom gave Winston Churchill and George Orwell common cause.

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom By Thomas E. Ricks Penguin Press 352 pp.

The world met Big Brother in George Orwell’s monumental novel "1984."  Since then, this figurehead for the virtually all-powerful government of “Oceania” has served as an icon for evil.  Orwell vividly demonstrates how totalitarian leadership crushes civilization – and as a result, "1984" is one of the most influential works of fiction ever written.

That makes it intriguing, although slightly unfair, to pair writer Orwell with Britain’s World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as Thomas E. Ricks does in Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom.  Churchill actually led the fight against Big-Brother totalitarianism in the form of the Nazi-led German nation.  And Churchill’s character was so large and resolute it appears for a while he was carrying the future of Western Civilization on his immensely capable shoulders. 

So in Ricks’s book, Churchill’s narrative is inevitably more compelling.  However, this doesn’t substantively undermine Ricks’s book or his premise. In fact, readers should know that Ricks’s gift for storytelling makes this book virtually impossible at times to set down.

Churchill, of course, was a conservative British politician and Orwell a liberal British writer.  Ricks asserts: “Despite all their differences, their dominant priority, a commitment to human freedom, gave them common cause.” In addition, both, famously, were men of well-chosen words. 

When in 1940 it appeared the Germans were about to invade Britain after they had conquered much of the rest of Europe, Churchill rallied his island nation. In an immensely moving speech Churchill declared:  “[W]hat is our aim?... It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is ... no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for....”

Meanwhile, at the end of WWII, Orwell published his political satire, "Animal Farm," which earned him widespread praise – except from those who favored Soviet-style authoritarian government.  But it was "1984" that established Orwell as one of the greats.  Published in 1949, the book created a new vocabulary that included “doublethink,” “Big Brother,” and “Thought Police.”  The three-part slogan from the book – “WAR IS PEACE/FREEDOM IS SLAVERY/IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH" – famously encapsulates efforts to subvert intelligent thought.

Ricks absorbingly tells about Churchill and Orwell’s early years: of Churchill’s military adventures, including his service in the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century when his derring-do as an officer, and his articles as a correspondent, first brought him recognition, and entrée into politics.  Meanwhile, Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, enlisted in his own adventures – featured in his earlier, less-famous books.  Blair/Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, despite his “lifelong skepticism of authority,” then was wounded in the Spanish Civil War fighting for the Republicans.

Many are aware of the existential drama faced by Churchill when he took over as Prime Minister. Up till then an ineffectual Neville Chamberlain attempted a policy of appeasement, agreeing to allow Germany to swallow part of Czechoslovakia in 1938. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, not content with annexing the Sudetenland, soon invaded and occupied most of the rest of Europe. Ricks quotes Orwell: “Like the mass of people, [Chamberlain] did not want to pay the price either of peace or of war.”

As if this weren’t enough, Churchill had homegrown battles to win – especially against political forces that would have removed him as prime minister and sought peace with Germany. Indeed, many thought that for Britain to continue to fight was pointless. American ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy, wrote to one of his sons: “I can see nothing but slaughter ahead.”

But Churchill rallied his nation even as German bombs started to land on Britain. Then, in June 1941, Hitler made the enormous strategic blunder of invading the Soviet Union. Finally, that December, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Churchill’s preeminent goal of getting the United States into the war was achieved. The tide turned against Germany; Churchill had succeeded in defending Western Civilization.

Meanwhile, Orwell, during World War II, wanting to serve the war effort, was hired by the BBC Overseas Service. What he did after quitting the BBC was far more important than anything he accomplished as an on-air announcer.

Ricks concludes his extraordinarily interesting book by showing how Orwell’s popularity has increased as his prescient writing warns against each new Big Brother.  He asserts that “In recent years, [Orwell] may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence.”

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