Looking back on the twentieth century, historians have traced the lives of innumerable fascinating figures. Men and women who impacted the lives of those around them. Who left their footprints in the sands of history.
Perhaps none, however, left their marks on the twentieth century more than two. Winston Churchill and George Orwell.
Both Brits. Both independent, critical thinkers of the highest order. These two men used their considerable talents to bend history to their liking. Churchill, by leading the charge against Nazi tyranny during World War II. And Orwell by penning two of the most revered anti-authoritarian tomes ever written. Books that continue to stand as beacons amid the dark pall of tyrannical governments 67 years after his death.
For the most part, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks's new book, "Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom," pays proper elegy to these two giants of history. With proper brio, Ricks explains that these men are "people we still think about, people who are important not just to understanding their times but also to understanding our own."
When a world leader stands staunchly against the tides of tyranny and oppression (as rare as its seems these days), he is said to have acted in a Churchillian manner. Likewise, when a government or its leadership behaves in an overtly authoritarian way, it is called Orwellian. So have both men's names, for all the right reasons, entered and remained in the vernacular of the times. Continuing to give light to the causes both worked so hard for during tumultuous lives. Both of which encompassed two global conflagrations. Where the world, twice within 21 years, seemed torn asunder by military and political volcanos that shattered the lives of millions. And set the geopolitical stage for the next century.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill grew up in a political family. His father a charismatic British statesman. His mother an American socialite. His early shortcomings would give way to the bold ambition and oratorical stylings for which he would be remembered.
Churchill's early years were spent in the army. Seeing action in British India, the Anglo-Sudan War, and the Second Boer War. Where he gained fame as a war correspondent and eventually wrote books about his military campaigns.
Following his famous escape from captivity during the Boer War, Churchill returned home and entered politics. Serving in multiple high-level positions over the course of 21 years, he was exiled to the political wilderness for controversial positions during the 1930s. And used that time to warn of the increasing dangers posed by Nazi Germany. And excoriate the Chamberlain government for its policy of appeasement.
Chamberlain resigned as prime minister in May of 1940, having been double crossed when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia without warning. Churchill was named his successor. After which he leveraged his prescient analysis on Hitler's Germany into one of the greatest simultaneous military and diplomatic feats the world has ever seen. Leading the charge against fascist tyranny. And, eventually, holding out long enough to see the Allied powers defeat the Nazi military machine.
As if that entre was insufficient...
Eric Arthur Blair, who came to adopt the pseudonym George Orwell, was a proper English gentleman born and raised in India. Where he developed very strong feelings against the caste system and all its societal accoutrements.
Orwell's father was a civil servant. His mother, of French descent, an artistic wife and mother intent on raising her son and two daughters.
From an early age, Orwell dreamed of becoming a famous writer. Reading poetry. And whatever literature he could attain. After returning to England, the children continued their education at prestigious boarding schools. With Orwell attending Eton, where he learned to play golf, shoot guns, fish, watch birds and write.
Eventually, Orwell would give in to the whims of adventure. Moving to Burma, he joined the Indian Imperial Police. Then on to Paris. Where he began writing novels. Like Hemingway, Orwell was drawn to the Spanish Civil War.
In December 1936, he set out for Barcelona. Though the American playwright Henry Miller, with whom he dined in Paris along the way, warned him of the "sheer stupidity" of doing so.
In Spain, the writer was subjected to the existential battle being waged between Franco's fascists and Stalin's communists. Both of whom resorted to any possible means to an end. In Spain, Orwell took a sniper's bullet to the throat. He lived. But the injury would plague him for the rest of his life.
Spain was perhaps the most impactful period of Orwell's intellectual development. Having seen the atrocities committed by authoritarian ideologies on both ends of the spectrum, he cemented his opinions on tyranny, autocracy and dictatorships. Learnings that manifested in Orwell's first great book, Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of Spain's brutal civil war.
Of course, all of this was a precursor what lay ahead: World War Two.
As hostilities broke out in Europe, Orwell desperately longed to serve his country. Having seen firsthand the realities of fascist tyranny. But his war wound would prevent him from being able to do so.
Accordingly, he settled for writing essays for a variety of publications. Eventually finding fulltime work with the BBC. Countering Nazi propaganda in the British colonies. Which, for a time, satiated his need to contribute to the war effort. Though, for the restless Orwell, it was never enough.
In 1944, his wife died during a general surgery. Just as his book Animal Farm was published.
"Animal Farm" was a political fable using barnyard animals and their human overseers to convey the dangers of authoritarian tyranny. As WWII ended, the book was particularly relevant. As the end of Nazi Germany seemed to have awoken the world to the dangers of Stalinist Russia. The book was his first big commercial success. Enabling him to concentrate all his efforts on writing.
The next five years saw Orwell public close to 150 articles and essays. Culminating in the completion of his next book, 1984, in 1949.
1984 is a dystopian novel set in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania. The story unfolds in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and daily government manipulation of the public. Oceania's rulers consist of the privileged elite who make up the Inner Party, and government and political party that persecutes individualism and independent thinking. Which the party calls "thoughtcrime." And controls through its "Thought Police."
The leader of the Inner Party, "Big Brother," has amassed an intense cult of personality. And works with the party to consolidate power entirely for the Inner Party's sake. Having no interest in the welfare of its citizenry.
The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith (Winston... coincidence? Orwell was a Churchill fan.), works for the Ministry of Truth. A government bureau responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. Which is to say, Winston is tasked with rewriting old newspaper and magazine articles so that they kowtow to the party line. Smith hates his job. Hates Big Brother. And begins to realize that he is, dangerously, thinking for himself. From whence the plot unfolds.
The book coined many terms and concept that found entrance into the western vernacular. And remain there today. Big Brother. Doublethink. Thoughtcrime. Newspeak. 2+2=5. And Orwellian, which came to mean the deception, secret surveillance, brutality and manipulation of history by an authoritarian state.
1984 has consistently been named one of the top novels of the twentieth century. And one of the most influential of all time. Underscored even today by the book's standing as a counterbalance to tyranny. Not to mention its continuing sales success.
As 1984 was published, Orwell's health declined dramatically. And he died on January 21, 1950. Three months after his second marriage. He was 46 years old.
Though these two men led disparate lives, they both came to represent the twentieth century's heroic bulwark against authoritarian tyranny. One leading the charge by his actions, oratorical artistry and inspirational leadership. The other through his intellectual frameworks, and their artistic translations via his essays, articles and books.
Without Churchill, many a historian has posited that Great Britain may have succumbed to Nazi imperialism. Likewise, Orwell became such a thorn in the side of Stalinist Russia that he was placed on an assassination list, were the opportunity ever available to Soviet spies.
As for any relationship extant between the two? There appears to have been none. Though, as stated, Orwell had long supported and been an admirer of Churchill's political skills. And Churchill did later admit to having read 1984 not once but twice. Calling it a "remarkable book."
Both continue to influence politics, culture, diplomacy, literature and human affairs. Without them, today's world would be a different place. As both men, when needed most, helped to preserve the fragile tapestry of liberty and democracy.
Freedom-loving men and women will always owe both a debt of gratitude.
Most importantly, Ricks' book reveals the fierce commitment shared by both men to critical thought. Neither was ever a follower. Treating popularity and scorn with equal skepticism.
Their resolute independence, Ricks concludes, put them in "a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill and Darwin, and from there through Orwell and Churchill to the 'Letter from Birmingham City Jail.' It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of good will can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter."
Big Brother be damned.