BOOK REVIEW: ‘Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom’ by Thomas E. Ricks
My first thought when I saw the title was Churchill and Orwell are an unlikely pair. The second was the early 60s joke: “We’ll have eight years of Jack, eight years of Bobby, eight years of Teddy and then it will be 1984!” Actually, the joke was wrong, even had all the Kennedys lived to produce a 24 year presidential dynasty. Teddy’s eight years wouldn’t have been up until the inauguration of his successor (If there was one!) in January, 1985.
So, other than the resonance of their names, what did Winston Churchill and George Orwell have in common? Well, they both went to war as young men, Churchill in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and South Africa; Orwell in the Spanish Civil War.
When I got my first government job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1956 my first task was to fill out a security clearance application. One of the questions was whether I had ever been a member of the International Brigade or the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Not knowing what they were, I was sure I had never been a member. Later I learned that they were brigades of volunteers from other countries who fought for the Spanish Republic against the Fascist forces of Franco. I also learned that the two brigades were dominated by Communists, hence the security clearance question.
One of the volunteers in the International Brigade in 1937 was an Englishman, Eric Blair. George Orwell was Blair’s pen name. Blair’s wife, Eileen, also volunteered. Blair was a leftist when he volunteered, as were most others. He happened to get put in a squad led by Trotskyite Communists. He was wounded at the front and sent back to Barcelona to recover and help out at the Trotskyite headquarters. The Soviet Communists undertook to eliminate the Trotskyites. Blair and his wife barely got out of Spain alive.
Although Blair/Orwell remained a leftist, his experience made him distrust governments and his most famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984 described the dismal situation of societies dominated by totalitarian governments that controlled information and used it to control thought.
The book also tells about Churchill’s war experiences, which I addressed in a recent essay (Trump & Churchill, Pagosa Daily Post May 30 2017). It compares Churchill and Orwell’s careers as authors. It provides concise biographies of both during the 1940s, when they did their most significant work, Churchill leading the fight against the Nazis and Orwell writing books illustrating just how bad living under totalitarian governments can be.
Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1945. Even though he was an established author, it took him over a year to find a publisher. Agents of the Soviet Union, working under Kim Philby, pressured publishers not to accept the book because it would offend the Soviets.
1984 was Orwell’s greatest success, eventually selling 50 million copies, and even being translated into Tibetan.
Ricks is rather critical of Churchill’s most successful book, his six volume memoir, World War Two. He especially complains that the last four volumes were largely telegrams and memoranda. I had the opposite reaction. Churchill used the telegrams and memoranda to document what was actually going on during a critical period of history. His commentary tied them together to make a coherent story.
Having read almost everything written about Churchill, I learned little about him from the book. I had read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris & London, Animal Farm, and of course, 1984. I knew nothing about his life. The comparison of Churchill and Orwell is a bit forced, but generally I enjoyed the book.