Review: They Saw the World Clearly: Churchill, Orwell, and the Fight Against Fascism

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Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom

By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin 352 pp. $28.00

By Jim Swearingen

Fascism is a dish best served hot. For its fans, impatient with the inefficiency and egalitarianism of democracy, fascism has a frenetic, white-hot allure. For committed opponents of authoritarianism, fascism offers the ultimate enemy, the brutal ideology worth sacrificing anything to defeat. To both sides, fascism is an invigorating ideology.

Two men who fervently belonged to the latter group are the subjects of national security expert Thomas E. Ricks’ acclaimed dual biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. For these British contemporaries, both former war correspondents and soldiers and both prolific writers, there was no more righteous struggle than combatting the de-humanizing effects of 20th century authoritarian regimes. And both came to what was a novel realization in the early 20th century: authoritarianism comes in two ideological versions, right and left.

Ricks chronicles how both Churchill and Orwell, through multiple self-inflicted hardships, prepared themselves for the role of outspoken outcast. For all of their talent and acclaim, the two men spent much of their careers in political exile, challenging a comfortable status quo that wooed lesser men into complacency.

It is easy for the modern observer to forget, but before World War II, fascism was not universally regarded as the aberrant evil that it is today. Many prominent members of the British government and the upper class considered it an opportune, even necessary, development in the face of Western Europe’s economic hardships and leftist unrest, as Ricks documents. Though Neville Chamberlain’s compliant attitude toward Hitler is much maligned today, Chamberlain was greeted as a hero when he returned from Munich in 1938 with the assurance of “peace for our time.” Churchill’s was a strident and lonely voice against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

Once he rose to the post of Prime Minister, Churchill’s had two primary aims: defeating the Axis powers and preserving the British Empire. Though George Orwell was no lover of the Empire, as Ricks shows, he greatly admired Churchill’s belligerent, uncompromising stance toward Nazism. Not everyone shared Orwell’s admiration: Ricks documents how when Churchill assumed control of Britain’s war-making capabilities, many in the government considered him and his militancy a churlish annoyance.

While Churchill was promoting anti-fascism at home, Orwell was fighting the good fight abroad. Orwell, as committed to socialism as Churchill was to conservatism, had taken up arms on the Loyalists’ side in the Spanish Civil War—a passionate cause for anti-Fascists of all stripes. In the course of the fighting he received a nearly fatal sniper bullet to the neck.

The anti-fascist side was not as uncomplicatedly noble as it appeared to many of its supporters. Unbeknownst to them, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who was prominently backing the Spanish Republican government against Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s Fascist putsch, was aggressively purging those pro-Republican forces he considered political heretics. Socialists and anti-Stalinist Communists were subject to accusations of treason, arrest, and elimination despite their military service against fascism.

Orwell was personally caught up in Stalin’s duplicity and murderous sabotage, as Ricks recounts. Falsely accused of being a Fascist sympathizer, Orwell was tried in absentia and narrowly escaped assassination himself. It was in this political cauldron that Orwell solidified his anti-Soviet brand of socialism. What had seemed a clear military conflict of right versus left had become a political chess game among multiple factions and competing authoritarian regimes, a theme he would explore in his novels.

Churchill and Orwell were united in their strong opposition to fascism, and to those who acquiesced to authoritarian regimes. They also shared a frustration with British institutions that were more focused on class hierarchy and adherence to bureaucratic formalities than on meeting the Nazi threat, something that comes across emphatically in both men’s writing. They differed, however, on the subject of Britain’s alliance with the Soviet Union. After his experiences in Spain, Orwell was opposed to it, while Churchill took longer to discern Stalin’s duplicity.

Ricks describes the falls from political grace that both men suffered with the end of their respective wars. Orwell, to our literary benefit, escaped back to England just ahead of Stalin’s henchmen, but still suffering from his wounds and tarnished reputation. As the U.S. assumed a larger and more unilateral role in defeating the Axis powers, Churchill became increasingly superfluous to the war effort. Ricks does well describing these frustrating periods in each man’s life.

In his closing chapter—which could stand alone as a political essay—Ricks makes the case for citizen activism, inspired by Churchill’s example and fueled by Orwell’s political philosophy. Turning to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Ricks tracks King’s Orwellian logic: authoritarian propaganda rests on governmental manipulation of facts.

Ricks observes that the typical human impulses in times of crisis are denial and resignation, to pretend that the horrible events unfolding before us either aren’t so dire or that, despite distasteful exigencies, everything will turn out all right in the end.

What made Churchill and Orwell political outcasts throughout much of their careers was their refusal to delude themselves or to keep quiet about what they perceived to be the methodical dismantling of freedom that was occurring across Europe. They faced considerable resistance along the way from critics who were skeptical of the anti-fascist cause. In her play Watch on the Rhine, Lillian Hellman – herself a committed anti-fascist – captured the sort of resistance men like Churchill and Orwell faced. Hellman’s protagonist, Kurt Muller, confronts the ambivalence in his wife’s American family, who are not yet prepared to support America’s entry into the war against Nazism: “I have no wish to make a mystery of what I have been doing….It sounds so big: it is so small. I am an Anti-Fascist. And that does not pay well.”

It certainly did not pay Orwell or Churchill well. Orwell was less acclaimed during his life than he would be after his death. And Churchill, famously, was turned out of the Prime Ministership after he won World War II. History, however, has paid them much better, crediting them both with some of the most valiant and eloquent resistance to authoritarianism.

When circumstances, such as those in 1938 threaten our freedoms again, when Western democratic leaders cavort with Soviet-style authoritarians and democratically elected leaders urge us to doubt our senses, let us hope that men and women with the courage and selflessness of Churchill and Orwell emerge. Our current day heroes may, like them, expect to be demonized, but there is no finer fight.