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4 June 2017updated 09 Jun 2022 4:53pm

What Winston Churchill and George Orwell had in common

A new book from Thomas E Ricks explores the similarities between two 20th century mavericks. 

By John Gray

In his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, published in 1946, George Orwell describes attending a meeting of PEN, the club founded in 1921 to defend the interests of writers, on the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, in which the poet celebrates freedom of expression. There were four speakers on the platform. One discussed freedom of the press but only in relation to India, another nervously advanced the proposition that freedom might be a good thing, the third attacked the laws banning obscenity in literature and the fourth gave over most of his speech to defending the purges in Russia. Roughly half of the audience was “directly connected with the writing trade”. Yet no one made the point that freedom of the press involves being free to criticise and oppose governments, nor was there any mention of the books that had been “killed” in England and the United States during the war. Orwell concluded that, “In its net effect the meeting was a demonstration in favour of censorship.”

Freedom of expression, Orwell believed, was threatened by what he called “the poisonous effect of the Russian mythos on English intellectual life”. He went on to cite an episode that illustrated this:

When Germany collapsed, it was found that very large numbers of Soviet Russians – mostly, no doubt, from
non-political motives – had changed sides and were fighting for the Germans. Also, a small but not negligible portion of the . . . displaced persons refused to go

back to the USSR, and some of them, at least, were repatriated against their will. These facts, known to many journalists on the spot, went almost unmentioned in the British press, while at the same time Russophile publicists in England continued to justify the purges and deportations of 1936-38 . . .

The episode to which Orwell refers was the forced repatriation by the British and other Allied governments of about two million Soviet citizens who had ended up as displaced persons in Europe after the end of the Second World War. Some who were compelled to return may have participated in Nazi atrocities and been war criminals; others were prisoners of war whom the Nazis had used as slave labour. Many were Russian conscripts who had joined the Germans in the vain hope of better treatment.

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As some of these displaced people had families with them, many of those that were sent back were women and children. Not all were in fact Soviet citizens – some had left Russia during or soon after the civil war. Knowing that repatriation could lead to execution or a long spell in the Gulag, many resisted return, some of them committing suicide or killing their infants in view of the British and American soldiers who were tasked with clubbing them on to trains. The repatriation policy was implemented under the Yalta Agreement, though the pact did not authorise coercion and Stalin seems to have been surprised that it was enforced with such vigour.

In the years following the war the displaced people to whom Orwell refers were not much more than a nuisance for Western governments. He could have been under no illusion when he wrote about them that he could do anything to alter their fate. He wrote partly to illustrate the ­self-censorship being practised by many journalists at the time, but more fundamentally because he believed it was his duty to bear witness to the truth. He felt compelled to report the facts, even if – as in this case – doing so would have no practical effect.

Thomas Ricks does not examine this particular episode, but it illustrates a trait that Orwell shared with Winston Churchill. Both men displayed a determination to confront unpleasant realities that those around them had chosen to ignore. Towards the end of Churchill and Orwell, Ricks – the author of Fiasco, the best book written to date about the Iraq War – considers the phenomenon of “psychological avoidance”, a term used by a biographer of Martin Luther King to describe the practice of sidestepping “hard, inevitable facts” so as to avert painful conflict with others or within oneself. Just as many Americans avoided facing the oppression of black people that produced the civil rights movement, many people avoided facing the rising power of Nazism and atrocities perpetrated by the Soviet state. Churchill and Orwell “were especially good at recognising the delusions of their own social sets”. Both men broke with their own tribe in order to confront evils about which most preferred to remain silent.

One of Ricks’s goals is to consider how it was that these two men became the truth-tellers we revere today. Churchill and Orwell is not another tedious exercise in demythologisation – the reductive analysis of heroic figures that has long been de rigueur for biographers and historians – but neither is it an exercise in hagiography. Ricks is well aware of the flaws in his characters: Churchill’s atavistic attitudes to India and Orwell’s streak of anti-Semitism, for instance. But he considers them as whole individuals who also displayed virtues that are compellingly relevant to our own time. The result is a feast of a book, laden with observations and insights that enable us to see these familiar figures, and through them our own time, in a fresh and illuminating light.

Everyone knows that Churchill was an indifferent pupil at school, notable for “his forgetfulness, carelessness, unpunctuality and irregularity in every way”. He detested Harrow and did not attend university. Less well known is that “his true education seems not to have begun until he was almost a grown man, serving as a young cavalry ­officer in Bangalore”. It was there, “far from home, in the winter of 1896”, that he was seized by “the desire for learning”, as he put it, and started to read Plato, Schopenhauer, Malthus and Darwin. He also “devoured Gibbon”, reading 25 pages of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) a day, an experience that Ricks believes helped shape Churchill’s prose style.

I suspect his reading list was instructive in other, more intellectually formative ways. Many of the books in which the energetic autodidact immersed himself expressed late-Victorian and Edwardian doubts about the future of civilisation. Far from it being an age of unbounded optimism, the time in which Churchill came to maturity was infused with a sense of degeneration and decline and an awareness of the ambiguities of scientific progress. The Island of Dr Moreau, H G Wells’s premonitory vision of the horrible consequences of genetic engineering, published in 1896, voiced an anxiety that was in the air. If Churchill was able to perceive the deadly danger of Nazism more clearly than many of his younger interwar contemporaries (he was born in 1874), one reason may have been that he was not altogether surprised by the threat of what he described, in a famous speech to the House of Commons in June 1940, as “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”.

The makings of the writer we know as George Orwell are more elusive. Born in Bengal in 1903 as Eric Blair, the son of a low-ranking bureaucrat in the Indian civil service, he won a scholarship that enabled him to have an English boarding-school education, which, like Churchill, he hated. Beaten for bed-wetting at his prep school, he observed that the richer students were never beaten,
however badly they behaved: “It was the poor but ‘clever’ boys who suffered.” Undaunted, he went on to win a scholarship to Eton. His school years taught him what he called “the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood”: that he was living in a world in which it was impossible to be good.

Ricks writes, of Orwell’s decision at the age of 19 to join the Imperial Police in India, “It is hard to fathom what he was thinking in doing so.” But in not going on to Oxford or Cambridge as most of his fellow Etonians did, Orwell may have been sparing himself further years in an institution of a kind he loathed. His choice of career showed an individuality, an uncompromising insistence on going his own way, possessed by few of his contemporaries, many of whom moved herd-like from public school to the Cambridge Apostles and communism. Orwell came of age as a junior policeman in Upper Burma, and it was in this distant outpost of the British empire that his distinctive version of socialism began to take shape.

More a memoir than a novel, his first completed book, Burmese Days – published in 1934, a year after Down and Out in Paris and London appeared – reflected his disgust when he experienced what he called in his essay “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) “the dirty work of Empire”.

Ricks’s book is studded with arresting vignettes. He describes how, “in a scene out of an early Hitchcock film”, Orwell – having been shot in the throat while fighting in Spain against Franco’s forces as a member of the Trotskyite POUM – fled the Hotel Continental in Barcelona after his wife, Eileen, smiled across the lobby at him and then whispered that he had to get out at once. If he had not done so, a hotel worker told him as he left the building, he would have been shot in the Soviet crackdown on Trotskyite forces that was in full swing. This incident may have influenced him when, not long after Animal Farm was published in August 1945 despite many delays and difficulties, he bought a pistol from a friend, saying he feared a communist attempt on his life.

His anxiety may not have been groundless. He had been marked for execution by Soviet-controlled forces if he was ever captured in Spain, and in Britain Animal Farm had been blocked by a Soviet agent, Peter Smollett, the head of the Russian section at the ministry of information and later known to have been recruited by Kim Philby; he advised Jonathan Cape against publishing the novel. It was among the books to which Orwell referred, in “The Prevention of Literature”, as having been “killed” in the war.

As Ricks shows, Churchill was not what would nowadays be called “a balanced personality”. Despatched to South Africa to cover the Boer War as a journalist, he arrived with two cases of wine, 18 bottles of whisky and six each of port, brandy and vermouth. Captured by the Boers after assisting a British commander under fire, he escaped, trekked to the house of a sympathetic Scottish mine manager, hid underground in a mine shaft, and was then transported inside a cargo of wool to Portuguese territory.

He seems as a young cavalry officer to have found the experience of combat exhilarating, but as a war leader he often surrendered to tears. In mid-May 1940, walking across Downing Street, he was cheered by a crowd. As soon as he was indoors he wept, saying: “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.” During the Blitz he wept at an East End air-raid shelter that had suffered a direct hit. Seeing him, an old woman said, “You see, he really cares, he’s crying.” Yet at the same time he was often in high spirits. As the Germans rolled across Europe into Ukraine and northern Iraq, he distracted himself by winding up the gramophone to play what his starchy aide Jock Colville called “the most vulgar” music. He also communed with his pets, “keeping up a running conversation with his cat, cleaning its eyes with his napkin, offering it mutton and expressing regret that it could not have cream in wartime”.

Different in so many ways, the two men were at one in defying some of the ruling beliefs of their age. But what was it that impelled them to do so? For Ricks, it was a familiar liberal faith: “the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter”. This seems to me doubtful. When Orwell wrote of the fate of Russians who had been deported against their will to the Soviet Union, he did not expect to persuade any among the leftist intelligentsia that an injustice had been done. He knew their minds were closed. Similarly, when Churchill took over as prime minister in 1940, he knew the fate of the world was in his hands. But he had no confidence that he would prevail. Congratulated by his bodyguard as he left Buckingham Palace, he replied: “I hope . . . it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.” He knew that everything he cared for could soon be destroyed. Yet he went on, fighting against what he believed might well be insuperable odds.

It may be because there is something defiant and tragic about them that Churchill and Orwell have such an enduring power over the imagination. Their appeal does not come from embodying any faith in continuing improvement. They speak to us because they did not share that faith, and yet continued to think and act.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Penguin)

Churchill and Orwell: the Fight for Freedom
Thomas E Ricks
Duckworth Overlook, 352pp, £25

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This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning