Winston and George, writers and truth tellers at heart

(iStock photo/Andrew_Howe & Wikipedia photo/Brown University Library)

As a refreshing tonic for our arid, “fake news”-filled political wilderness, Thomas E. Ricks reminds us of the virtues of intellectual honesty and moral courage with his dual biography Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. This book holds a particular value these days for those who may need a reminder about the evils of autocratic rule and how quickly modern society can deprive individuals of their basic human liberties.

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Churchill and Orwell by Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press. 352p, $28

In an engaging style, Ricks, an author and former prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post,recalls the highs and lows of both men’s prodigious lives with a reporter’s precision and brevity. It is also a mark of a gifted historian like Ricks to find tidbits that delight even the most knowledgeable of Churchillians and weave them into a narrative that still seems fresh and new.

At first glance, the premise of this book seems preposterous. The men never met and their career paths barely intersected in pre-war Britain. Though both men suffered difficult childhoods with severe and disapproving fathers, Churchill and Orwell became very different types as adults. One (Churchill) was an extrovert, a man of the people esteemed by millions for his stirring speeches and leadership during World War II; the other (Orwell) a cranky, inward-looking writer whose best work—notably Animal Farm and 1984, both allegorical novels about the misuse of power and language—didn’t emerge until he experienced the cauldron of war.

Though both men suffered difficult childhoods with severe and disapproving fathers, Churchill and Orwell became very different types as adults.

Yet Ricks skillfully uses the men as tent poles for a broader discussion about the impact of perpetual warfare on human souls, how governments lie through euphemisms and manicured deceits, and how even peacetime can lower our defenses to the loss of liberty. As a reader, I enjoyed this mix-and-match comparison of two iconic figures in which the total effect is more than the sum of their biographies. That Ricks is able to pull together these very disparate lives into a coherent analysis, with a surprise finale, is his great triumph.

Despite their differences, Orwell and Churchill shared an uncommon felicity with language and a healthy respect for truth-telling. Both were fundamentally writers at heart. Orwell often wrote for theObserver newspaper run by wealthy owner David Astor, while Churchill’s published articles appeared in newspapers owned by his longtime confidant, Lord Beaverbrook, and other conservative-minded friends.

War helped define each of them. Ricks describes Orwell as a mediocre novelist who was a socialist until his journalistic experiences in the Spanish Civil War awoke him to the corrosive impact of Soviet-style communism and its far-left adherents in the press. “In Spain for the first time I saw a newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts,” he recalled.

While in the trenches in 1937, Orwell was struck in the neck by a sniper from the fascist side. Though he managed to survive, his health would never be the same. As the bullet passed through him, Orwell recalled, “I felt a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electrical terminal; with it a sense of other weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.”

Churchill, who won the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature, also relied on book-writing and journalism for his basic income. His earliest dispatches made him famous as a young man. He wrote about witnessing soldiers die bravely in battle in places like Afghanistan and India. During the Boer War in South Africa, his account of being shot at and taken prisoner had all the comic derring-do of an Indiana Jones movie. “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” he remarked.

With prodigious writing, Churchill subsidized his family’s lifestyle at their Chartwell mansion and helped to educate himself about the world, especially the looming menace of Hitler in the early 1930s. When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts at appeasing the Nazis failed, Churchill took charge in 1940 and quickly put his powerful, soaring rhetoric to work. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” he said in his first address as prime minister, echoing a poem by Lord Byron.

Soon after, Churchill used language to rally the British people after one of its most embarrassing military fiascoes—the massive evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, ” he intoned. Unlike lesser politicians, Ricks points out, Churchill remained candid about the near capture of the British army by the Germans. “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” he said, adding to his credibility and trust by the public.

While Churchill, the British Empire’s most faithful disciple, and Orwell didn’t agree on the merits of imperialism, they did view this world war as vital to saving the essential freedoms of Western civilization. “If this war is about anything at all,” Orwell declared, “it was a war in favor of freedom of thought.” When Hitler bombed London and seemed ready to invade, these two men remained resolute while others predicted defeat. “Many people around them expected evil to triumph and sought to make their peace with it,” Ricks describes. “These two did not. They responded with courage and clear sightedness.”

As social observers, generally from opposite ends of the political spectrum, both men were keenly aware of England’s long-held class divisions. “It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly,” Orwell lambasted. Churchill, whose mother was American-born, insisted to Navy leaders that promotions be based on merit rather than lineage.

Orwell, like many, admired Churchill for his moral courage in standing up to the Nazi threat.

Orwell, like many, admired Churchill for his moral courage in standing up to the Nazi threat. But in his memorable postwar novels, Animal Farm and then 1984, Orwell provided a lasting critique of the subtle dangers of a totalitarian rule. Phrases from his books—including “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and the unforgettable line “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”—speak to us today in a world of increasing state surveillance, where being “safe” for many is more important than being free.

Although Churchill was often lauded as the most important person of the 20th century, Orwell might well be the true clarion for this one. After assessing both men’s lives from the vantage of history, Ricks concludes: “All told, in terms of contemporary influence, Orwell arguably has surpassed Churchill.”

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