Cover Image: Churchill and Orwell

Churchill and Orwell

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review. Review and opinions within are my own.

I had previously read Ricks' Fiasco and The Generals, both of these dealt largely with specific failings of the US military and its bureaucracy. This venture is quite a departure; apparently Ricks got interested in both Churchill and Orwell while studying the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell had volunteered, and Ricks found that both men had been war correspondents like himself.

The common bonds between Churchill and Orwell were that they were both Britains who took great stands against totalitarianism. Churchill rallied his government and fellow countrymen to fight the Nazis regardless of the outcome. Orwell channeled his own first-hand observations to write how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union were squelching dissident voices and demanding absolute loyalty. The work of both men arguably kept totalitarianism from Europe for the 20th century. Churchill's stand against the Nazis hastened their defeat. Orwell's bestsellers innoculated generations from the dangers of totalitarianism by illustrating them so vividly in the imagination.

While I finished this book, US President Donald Trump took his first overseas trip and famously asked NATO members to step up their timeline for increasing funding as a percentage of their GDP, as well as became the first President to not state the importance of Article V of mutual defense. German Chancellor Angela Merkel later gave a speech to her constituents that Europe could no longer rely on the US and Britain, stating "The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over." Other leaders appear to be in agreement with her sentiment. The Atlantic and other journals are dismayed, writing that "the old order has passed." Ricks' book is about how that old order was built and its importance. He concludes the book with some ominous warnings in the parallels he sees between what Orwell predicted and the world we live in today. Ricks writes that "Orwell and Churchill recognized that the key question of their century to preserve liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life" (loc. 53). "Liberty" was not a word one heard much in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. The reader is left to wonder whether, when the next totalitarian threat arises, there will be any Churchills or Orwells to rise to the occassion.

My detailed review:
Ricks has obviously dug deeply into these mens' histories, so deeply that he felt the need to include many details that he should have omitted. I learned more about the details of these mens lives and works than was necessary. Churchill and Orwell were not extraordinary men, their lives were somewhat pathetic and unenviable. Before 1939, no one would have predicted their fame, indeed Orwell was largely unmentioned in lists of British authors published at the time. Orwell was an unwealthy scholarship student at Eton College, whereas Churchill's parents were part of the elite class and he was a precocious boy of privelege. Both saw the workings of the British Empire from abroad, Churchill in India and Africa, and Orwell did service as an MP in Burma. Both had poor role models as fathers and both enjoyed literature. Both had health problems and an apparent awkwardness among women.

Unlike Churchill, Orwell (real name: Eric Blair) despised class difference and colonialism (see his essay "Shooting an Elephant"). He was a democratic socialist, volunteering on the front lines against Franco's nationalist forces in Spain. There he saw how the Soviet NKVD were co-opting the communist forces to suit their own needs, including destroying the Trotsky-sympathetic POUM Socialists that Orwell was fighting with. It was only when he returned from the front after a near-fatal wound that he saw how the Soviets were censoring the media, rounding up POUM sympathizers, and inventing problems to blame them for. He noted the Soviet use of the media and literally re-writing history to suit their needs. The Soviets had no intention of defeating Franco's forces and used the exercise simply to purge subversive threats. (The NKVD used the same propoganda techniques as seen in the recent invasion of Crimea, painting the Ukranian army as actually being Nazis, similarly to how they claimed the POUM were actually fascist Nazis as well). Orwell writes of how he and comrades would pass on the street and pretend not to know each other as everyone was trying to avoid being arrested. After being indicted for espionage and treason by Barcelona, Orwell and his wife narrowly escaped the crackdown, and he later learned a bounty was put on his head, which gave him concern for his own life after publishing Animal Farm in 1945.

During the war, Orwell volunteered for the Home Guard during the blitz and later had an uninspiring career with the BBC while continuing to write articles and books. He wrote in his diary and letters of his fondness for Churchill and how he rallied the country to fight rather than surrender to the Nazi threat. His wife's brother died early in the war and that deeply affected her and their relationship as well. Orwell's earlier works were not considered good. Animal Farm's original run was only 2,000 copies but it has been in print ever since. The book was considered such an overt attack on socialism that Orwell had difficulty trying to publish it. Ricks notes how Animal Farm has been popular all over the world, how many in Soviet countries, Middle Eastern dictatorships, and elsewhere remark of how it summed up their condition remarkably. Even though Orwell had never lived under totalitarian threat, he'd almost paid with his life for his observations of its practice in Spain. He witnessed the Communists re-writing of history to erase the memory of Stalin's previous treaty with Hitler. He interacted with left-leaning people in England who held Stalin and Communism in high esteem (it was not until after Kruschev revealed Stalin's mass-murders that the world would get a clue). He wrote in 1945 that "I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism" (loc. 3298). 1984 was published not long before Orwell died and remains a bestseller.

Winston Churchill's political career was considered "finished" not long before he became Prime Minister. While a Torie, he had previously been with the Labour party and was trusted little by anyone. His previous Cabinet experience had been as First Lord of the Admiralty, where he organized the disastrous defeat at Gallipoli. He had made a name for himself publishing the accounts of British actions in South Asia and in the Boer War, but Ricks writes that Churchill's experiences were not that noteworthy, Churchill's ambition was to try to get famous to move up the social ladder and perhaps prove his father (who had once served in the Cabinet) wrong about his potential. Churchill championed a single cause that was considered political suicide in 1939-- he criticized Neville Chamberlain and the British Government for pursuing a policy of appeasement with the Nazis. He considered the Munich Conference to be a great disaster and correctly predicted that it would soon cost the British a great deal more to beat back the fascists than it would have if they had held firm years before.

Reading the book, I was stunned by how much we Americans take the British and then the Americans' standing up to the Nazis for granted, much less defeating them. I grew up on a steady diet of WWII documentaries and movies and was keenly aware of the crisis the British faced during the blitz, the disasters of Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, etc. But it's easy to think that there was always that resolve after 12/7/1941 to defeat the Axis powers no matter what. But the reality in 1938-1939 was quite different. England wanted peace with Hitler, gave ticker-tape parades for Chamberlain for his attempts to appease him. The King himself supported appeasement. A conservative MP formed pro-German, anti-semitic group. At least one British mayor flew a swastika flag upon the agreement at Munich. The elite and intelligentsia had many friends in the Nazi party, as well as with Mussolini, spent time in Germany and Italy and praised Hitler's character. Why was Czechoslovakia a concern for them, anyway? Everyone secretly shares his disdain for the Jews, etc. Others were Communist spies or double-agents, like British correspondent/MI-6 officer Kim Philby, eager to undermine Western democracy and hasten its demise. One of the most ardent critics of Churchill's dissent and proponents of England's surrender to the Nazis was US Ambassador to England Joseph Kennedy. After Britain declared war, Kennedy was constantly cabling Washington predicting London's imminent surrender and proposing that Roosevelt also consider making a pact with the Nazis. "Kennedy told Roosevelt that he believed that events would make it necessary for the United States to implement, 'possibly under other names, the basic features of the Fascist state: to fight totalitarianism, we would have to adopt totalitarian methods'" (loc. 1165-1167). One of the most poignant scenes in the book is when FDR throws Kennedy out of his house, removing him from his position, and basically calling him a traitor. (This bit of forgotten history helps illustrate conservatives' later ire for JFK.) FDR would later send his own man, Harry Hopkins, to evaluate Churchill and the British position for himself in order to undue the misinformation that Kennedy and others had propogated. There were plenty of other "America First" isolationists in the US like Charles Lindbergh who thought America should make friends with Hitler.

After Chamberlain resigned, Halifax, who had been head of the British Foreign Office, was expected to take up the mantle but refused, instead supporting Churchill. It was Halifax who had specifically requested Britain's soccer team give the Nazi salute when playing in Berlin in 1938. "Had Halifax been willing to take the prime mintership instead of Churchill, he very likely would have entered into peace talks with the Germans" (loc 1196). Churchill gave passionate speeches, began demanding the rusty wheels of government begin turning, and issued orders to put Britain on the offensive. When family members urged him to consider fleeing to Canada should London fall, he declined, writing that "There are too many of these exiled 'antifascists' already. Better to die if necessary" (loc. 1409). Churchill was still not always popular; many, including Orwell, thought he would have to resign after the British suffered a tremendous defeat in Singapore. But his resolve and determination, particularly against the elites who he saw as not doing their fair part, helped motivate and save the country. 

Despite all the details covered, Ricks leaves out the importance of the Great Depression in the 1930s backdrop, Roosevelt's political campaign reminding America of how he kept them out of war while at the same time getting ready to enter it, all the politics and history of lend-lease, etc. (David M. Kennedy's book Freedom from Fear covers this period quite well.) He does remark from Orwell and others that Americans became less and less popular in Britain as the war went on. By D-Day, the American contingent numbered 1.6 million and England was virtually occupied. Many British who fretted about the decline of their empire resented Churchill for having traded the British Empire for a new American one. Ricks writes that the relationship between FDR and Churchill is often embellished; they appear to have had little in common other than the common cause of fighting the Nazis. As the war went on, the friendship never really deepened. Churchill, oddly, chose not to attend FDR's funeral in 1945 (perhaps because he was keenly aware of his own mortality) and LBJ reciprocated when Churchill died in 1965.

Neither Churchill nor Orwell ended well, however. Orwell's wife died unexpectedly and Orwell's respieratory problems never improved. Churchill likely had a heart attack while visiting the US in 1943 and suffered from extreme fatigue during the war. Losing the 1945 election was a major blow, and his return to the prime ministership from 1951-1955 is best left forgotten. Ricks writes that the relationship between FDR and Churchill is often embellished; they appear to have had little in common other than the common cause of fighting the Nazis. As the war went on, the friendship never really deepened. Churchill, oddly, chose not to attend FDR's funeral in 1945 (perhaps because he was keenly aware of his own mortality) and LBJ reciprocated by not attending or even sending his VP when Churchill died in 1965.

Ricks reviews all of Orwell and Churchill's works, including each of Churchill's WWII memoirs. The author closes the book with a look at modern citations of Orwell, as various political camps claim Orwell for their side, and Ricks offers opinions about whether he was "right" or "wrong" on certain issues. One takeaway is that now America home to a large intelligence state where information is easily collected and housed. We are also in a state of perpetual war, similar to Oceania. Those wars are increasingly fought by small groups of highly-trained soldiers or even remote-controlled drones in far away places. The use of indefinite detention and torture are now almost expected. Hicks interestingly notes that Churchill freed a Nazi sympathizer in 1943 and included his explanation because it was the right thing for free peoples to do in order not to turn into the totalitarian beasts they were fighting (Orwell applauded the move at the time for the same reason). Churchill stated:

"The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgment by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and it is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments, whether Nazi or Communist...Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of a civilization" (p. 3043).

If you have read Guantanamo Diary, you will definitely agree with this quote.

Somehow, Ricks pulls Martin Luther King, Jr. into his train of thought and the book really concludes awkwardly.

I once lent a copy of Animal Farm to an English student in a former Soviet country where I was working. He was familiar enough with the re-writing of history in his country to appreciate the book, but I never learned if he ever read it. Animal Farm helped me understand the control of thought I saw clearly in the propoganda of Soviet and even post-Soviet textbooks. I started 1984 as a boy but I will now read it quickly and with much more appreciation. (With an understanding of Orwell's personally being plagued by a keen sense of smell and breathing problems.)

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It is certainly well-researched, but many of the details were unnecessary. Still, these figures and this period are more essential for our time than ever.
Was this review helpful?