Strange bedfellows in war against tyranny
Churchill and Orwell
Thomas E Ricks
Duckworth, hdbk, 352 pages, €29.99
Politically, Orwell and Churchill were poles apart - but each made a name by voicing awkward truths and stubbornly going against the grain, says Keith Lowe
Recession, war, climate change, terror - in the past few years, the world's crises have piled up alarmingly. For times like these, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas E Ricks has one golden piece of advice: "Work diligently to discern the facts, and then use your principles to respond."
Sounds simple, doesn't it? But as his new book shows, the ability to see facts clearly is not something human beings are particularly good at; and the courage to act on one's principles is a rarer quality still. "Most of us, when confronted with a crisis, do not dive into the matter," he writes. "Rather, we practise avoidance."
To show the benefit of confronting awkward truths, Ricks asks us to consider two of his heroes: Winston Churchill and George Orwell. Though they came from very different backgrounds, and drew their principles from different ends of the political spectrum, they shared two essential qualities: the imagination to question the received wisdom of their time, and the moral courage to stand up for the truth, even when their friends and colleagues seemed to want nothing more than to silence them.
Churchill got many things wrong, but throughout the 1930s and 1940s he had a better grasp of the big picture than any of his contemporaries. "Germany is re-arming," he fretted in 1933, adding that the whole continent would descend once more into "a general European war" unless Hitler could be stopped. His repeated warnings about Germany over the next five years were treated with derision by his fellow politicians, but Churchill stuck to his convictions even when it looked as though they might end his career.
This stubbornness, eventually, was the making of him. When the policy of appeasement collapsed in 1939, just as Churchill had said it would, there was only one serious contender to lead Britain through the war. When many around the world were writing off Britain's resistance to Hitler as a lost cause, he understood that victory was possible if Britain could hold out just long enough to draw America into the war.
Churchill saw from the beginning what was at stake. "This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland," he told the House of Commons on the opening day of the war. "We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man."
His thoughts were echoed a few years later by George Orwell, Ricks's second subject. "If this war is about anything at all," wrote Orwell, "it is a war in favour of freedom of thought." Just as Churchill spoke out against appeasers and fascist sympathisers among his fellow Conservatives, so Orwell spoke out against apologists for Stalin on the Left.
His eyes were first opened to Communist excesses in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. He had gone to Spain to fight Franco's fascists, but had ended up being hunted down by those on his own side who wanted their particular strain of Communism to stamp out all alternatives.
"I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors," he wrote, "and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories." The Left, he discovered, was just as capable of lies and repression as the Right.
On his return to Britain, Orwell found himself accused of betraying Leftist solidarity by his reporting of Communist excesses. But, like Churchill, he insisted on calling a spade a spade; and like Churchill, this stubbornness would be the making of him. While others kept turning a blind eye to Stalin's sins, Orwell spent the middle years of the war writing Animal Farm, an allegory of Stalin's rise to power. Although he struggled to find a publisher, when the book was finally released in the summer of 1945 it was an instant hit. His next, the dystopia 1984, was even more successful. The world was waking up to the truth about Stalin.
None of this is new, of course. One can read the same stories and the same analyses in dozens of other biographies and histories of the war. Ricks has done little original research for this book, and relies heavily on the work of other biographers, especially Martin Gilbert's biography of Churchill.
His juxtaposition of Churchill with Orwell is more original, but not without its problems. While it is interesting to compare these two very different characters, Ricks never makes it quite clear why he should have chosen these men rather than any other two. The parallels he draws between Churchill's and Orwell's lives are stretched, to say the least; and his contention that the "key question" each of them faced was the battle to "preserve the liberty of the individual", while certainly true in Orwell's case, is more simplistic when it comes to Churchill.
For all that, though, this is still an enjoyable book. Ricks is an excellent writer; his eye for telling detail brings to life these two remarkable and much-mythologised men.
Ricks's previous book was a study of America's disastrous military adventure in Iraq - and this book, too, feels as much about the present as it is about the past. In the final pages, Ricks asserts that our own freedoms are also under threat.
Instead of tolerating the mistreatment of minorities, turning a blind eye to the corporate plundering of our personal data, and indulging in knee-jerk reactions to devastating world events, we should all take a leaf out of Churchill's and Orwell's book. Ricks asks us to pause, take a cold look at what is happening before us, and stand up for our hard-won freedoms.
Who could possibly argue with that?
Keith Lowe is author of The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us (Viking)