Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
Thomas E. Ricks, Penguin Press, 2017, 340 pages, $37.00
Reviewed by Mark Milke
One writer was a fierce defender of the British Empire in India, whose warrior ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough, was his hero. His country estate at Chartwell reflected his upper class upbringing, although he could barely afford it at points in his career. The other wordsmith was, for a time, a civil servant in Burma, where he learned to despise British imperialism. His lifelong political sympathies swung left; his last home where he wrote one of his most famous books was a modest, isolated cottage.
My references are of course to Winston Churchill and George Orwell, who despite having very different class origins and careers, would both become global leaders in the fight against political tyranny, through the use of well-chosen words among other tools.
These two literary and political icons are the dual subjects of a new book, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, courtesy of Thomas Ricks, an American journalist who specializes in military and security issues.
For Churchill and Orwell admirers alike, the book should be a welcome addition to any existing collection of books from or about both men. Churchill & Orwell is a well-written, twisting tour through their extraordinary and separate-but-similar lives.
Thus, the book begins in media res, in the 1930s, with Churchill in New York City to give a paid speech to help shore up his disastrous finances (he lost a small fortune in the 1929 stock market crash). Stepping off a Manhattan curb, out of habit the 57-year-old Brit looks right but not left and is hit by a car travelling thirty miles an hour. He suffered a slashed scalp and cracked ribs, but thankfully for civilization, he survived.
Similarly, Ricks introduces readers to Orwell in mid-life; it is May 1937 when we first meet the then “minor author of mediocre novels,” serving as a soldier in northeastern Spain, fighting for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s forces.
A nationalist sharpshooter finds his target in a trench 175 yards away, and launches a copper-plated seven mm bullet into the base of Orwell’s lungs, just missing a carotid artery. Eric Blair – Orwell’s actual name – expected to die within minutes. He survived, and our world, as with Churchill, was fortunate that he did.
After those near-death escapes, Ricks takes readers back to his subjects’ early lives. We learn of Churchill’s time in a Brighton boarding school and his endurance of what today might be labelled parental neglect. Lord Randolph never visited his son, not even while in Brighton to deliver a speech. It was a frequent snub from father to son. They might have had just “three or four intimate conversations” in the whole of Winston’s life according to the later Prime Minister’s own accounts.
The author takes us through Churchill’s time as a soldier and writer in the Boer War and beyond, and through his personal life: Winston married Clementine in 1908 and by all accounts was a faithful husband, unlike other members of the British aristocracy including his own parents, whose infidelity was legendary.
The author does a fine job flipping between the biographies of Churchill and Orwell, guiding the reader through their almost uncannily similar experiences as soldiers, civil servants, travellers, husbands, and ultimately as gifted writers whose superior use of language helped defeat European fascism in 1945 and then stood as a bulwark against 20th century communism.
There were political differences between Churchill and Orwell that reflected their origins. Churchill’s upper class birth and life might have inclined him to tradition, including defense of empire, but he was not reactionary. He was, for instance, an early and steadfast supporter of Jews in Great Britain and elsewhere, including support for the Balfour Declaration in the 1920s that set the stage for the eventual creation of Israel. This disposition meant Churchill was sensitive early on to the existential threat Adolf Hitler and National Socialism posed to Jews and other civilized peoples the world over.
Ricks also delves into early life of George Orwell, born Eric Blair in 1903 in Bengal, India, where his father was a low-ranking civil servant tasked with overseeing the growing and processing of opium. He was shipped back to England at age one with his sister and, as with Churchill, rarely saw his father early in life. Also like Churchill, Orwell hated his boarding school.
Orwell returned to Burma in the 1920s, where he served as a policeman. The experience clearly shaped his worldview, as revealed in his first novel, Burmese Days. The setting was an imperial-era bored cop who becomes increasingly disenchanted with “the abuse of power in various forms”. An early Orwell essay quoted by Ricks expresses his disgust for “…the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups…the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboo…” It was fiction but in essence autobiographical.
Orwell’s youthful experiences in Burma taught him to be “skeptical of authority” and that “the exercise of power can corrupt a person”. That initially made him sympathetic to the political left – but his experience in the Spanish Civil War led him to doubt all who wielded power, or desired to.
In Spain, Orwell discovered that the Soviet Communist party was more interested in wiping out its erstwhile socialist allies than in defeating Franco. Moreover, writes Ricks, “Orwell realized, with shock, that left-wing newspapers did not report the situation accurately, and did not want to. Rather, they willingly accepted lies.”
After Orwell’s wounding, Soviet communists in Spain began rounding up and murdering his fellow socialist travellers. Ricks provides a riveting re-telling of Orwell’s own escape. Arriving at Barcelona’s Hotel Continental to meet his wife, Eileen, she faked a smiled until he came near enough for her to hiss in his ear “Get out!…Get out at once!” Orwell’s wife knew the communists were just then searching for him. Her warning, and the help of a friend who ferried him secretly out of the hotel, saved his life for a second time in 1937.
These and other stories in Churchill & Orwell help explain why Orwell would later write Animal Farm, and then late in life, 1984. And why Churchill stood against the isolationist sentiments that held sway among British political elites in the 1930s. Both men were clear-eyed intellectual and literary protagonists who grasped why foundational elements in Western civilization mattered and why they must be defended.
Thus Orwell savaged Neville Chamberlain in 1940 as “a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights”. He had learned how dangerous it is to allow bullies to go unchallenged. As Orwell later explained to a friend, this was the fatal mistake the animals made in Animal Farm after the pigs overthrew the farmer and promised a revolution of equality for all animals. “Had the animals stood up to the pigs when they kept the apples for themselves,” Orwell said, tyranny would have been avoided. No doubt Orwell was thinking of Chamberlain and his appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.
As prime minister, Churchill was the polar opposite of Chamberlain, rallying his every intellectual, strategic, political and military ability to preserve Great Britain in the darkest days, weeks and months between his ascension to office in May 1940 and the entry of the Americans in late 1941. More than anything else, Churchill later wrote, his motivation was the defence of “intellectual liberty,” which he called, “without a doubt…one of the distinguishing marks of Western civilisation”. He added that “if this war is about anything at all, it is a war in favour of freedom of thought.”
Ricks’ fine parallel tracking of Churchill and Orwell is marred only by his occasional editorial speculations about what the pair might have thought of today’s issues. An example: Ricks muses that Orwell would have “likely have been engaged by the phenomenon of global warming”. The author also becomes preachy about other matters including the American and British responses to 9/11, weirdly calling it “panicky” and imagining that Orwell would have felt the same.
To use a British expression, Ricks’ musing is daft. This is extraneous comment shoehorned into an otherwise fine book, no more relevant or plausible than speculation about Orwell’s possible thoughts on stem cell research or proposed missions to Mars.
That glaring flaw aside, Ricks’ focus on the ability of Orwell and Churchill to withstand tsunamis of ill-informed opinion (Orwell vs the political left and Churchill vs almost everyone in certain years) and rebut them with their own powerful ideas and words is an effective way to view and contrast their lives.
Churchill’s words often had an immediate impact given his parliamentary roles early on and especially as prime minister as of 1940 and beyond. As this summer’s blockbuster movie Dunkirk demonstrates so well, his “never surrender” speech almost singlehandedly turned an abject military failure and retreat into a narrative that rallied his nation to fight back and eventually defeat the Nazis. Orwell’s insights impact us still, especially about the abuse of truth by tyrants. Animal Farm and 1984 resonate to this day because of their message that power corrupts not only people but language and everyday life.
Writes Ricks on how Churchill and Orwell battled Hitler and fascism, and Stalin and communism: “They responded with the same qualities and tools – their intellects, their confidence in their own judgments even when those judgments were rebuked by most of their contemporaries.” He then explains how both outlasted and triumphed over the willfully blind among them with “their extraordinary skill with words. And both steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association.”
Despite their different classes, upbringing and political views, Orwell and Churchill shared these core convictions and admired each other for them. In 1984, the former named his hero “Winston.” In 1953, upon reading that book for the second time, the latter told his doctor, “It is a very remarkable book.”
Indeed, and they were both very remarkable men.
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