Category Archives: democracy

Orwell’s Recent Popularity Abroad

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle pp. 253-255:

Instead of fading away, Orwell has enjoyed a new surge of popularity. The passing of the historical context of 1984 seems to have liberated the novel and allowed its message to be recognized as speaking to a universal problem of modern humankind.

The evidence for this is that in recent years, readers and writers around the world have responded to Orwell’s depictions of a nearly omniscient state. “We live in a new age of surveillance, one where George Orwell’s concept of living in a society whereby every citizen is under constant watch is becoming alarmingly prevalent,” one blogger wrote matter-of-factly in July 2015. An Iraqi writer, Hassan Abdulrazzak, said in 2015, “I’m sure George Orwell didn’t think: ‘I must write an instructive tale for a boy from Iraq,’ when he wrote 1984. But that book explained Iraq under Saddam for me better than anything else before or since.” In 2015, 1984 was listed as one of the ten bestselling books of the year in Russia.

In 2014, 1984 became so popular as a symbol among antigovernment protestors in Thailand that Philippine Airlines took to warning its passengers, in a list of helpful hints, that carrying a copy could cause trouble with customs officials and other authorities. “Emma Larkin,” the pen name of an American journalist working in Southeast Asia, wrote, “In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984.

Orwell seems to have resonated especially in modern China. Since the year 1984, some thirteen Chinese translations of 1984 have been published. Both it and Animal Farm also have been translated into Tibetan. Explaining the relevance of Orwell to China, one of his translators, Dong Leshan, wrote, “The twentieth century will soon be over, but political terror still survives and this is why Nineteen Eighty-four remains valid today.”

Orwell’s earlier meditations on the abuses of political power also found new audiences. An Islamic radical, reading Animal Farm while imprisoned in Egypt, realized that Orwell spoke to his private doubts. “I began to join the dots and think, ‘My God, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,’” said Maajid Nawaz. In Zimbabwe, an opposition newspaper ran a serialized version of Animal Farm that underscored the point about a betrayed revolution by running illustrations in which Napoleon the pig is depicted wearing the big-rimmed eyeglasses favored by Zimbabwe’s president-for-life, Robert Mugabe. In response, someone destroyed the newspaper’s press with an antitank mine. A Cuban artist was jailed without trial for plans to stage a version of Animal Farm in 2014. To make sure the authorities got the point, he painted the names “Fidel” and “Raoul” on two pigs.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, China, Cuba, democracy, education, language, Middle East, Southeast Asia

Churchill and His Americans

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle pp. 161-162:

Churchill’s growing affection for the Americans was not entirely shared in Britain by other members of his class, either on the left or right. The pro-Soviet spy ring of Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess was motivated in part by distaste for the United States and its culture. Philby, in his own memoir, relates that Burgess delighted in publicly taking “hefty sideswipes at the American way of life in general.”

Anti-Americanism was, if anything, even more intense on the English right. “It is always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans but words,” Neville Chamberlain had stated in December 1937. When Lord Halifax was sent by Churchill to become the British ambassador to Washington, Lord Linlithgow, the viceroy of India, wrote him a note of sympathy about “the heavy labour of toadying to your pack of pole-squatting parvenus.”

One good definition of a snob is someone who, encountering an awkward social situation, quickly assumes the other person is at fault. Nicolson personified this. On a visit to America before the war, he found the natives well meaning but pitiful: “Most of them feel kindly but are so ignorant and stupid that they do not understand my point of view.” Nor did he trust their tendency toward openness. “There is something about the smarminess of Americans which makes me see red . . . the eternal superficiality of the American race.” These doubts persisted into the war. In November 1943, he wrote to his wife, “We are far more advanced. I despair sometimes about the Americans.”

There also was a suspicion that the Americans, for all their easy grins, did not share a major British wartime goal, the preservation of the British Empire. “The President was no friend of the British Empire,” noted Harold Macmillan, who would become prime minister in 1957. “This anti-colonialism was a strong part of Roosevelt’s make-up, but he seemed to have very crude ideas as to how independence could be gradually introduced in the great colonial empires without disorder.” One of Roosevelt’s notions that the British deemed crude was his view that Vietnam should become independent. History might be different had FDR’s advocacy of Vietnamese independence not been rebuffed by the British and French.

Condescension would lead many British officials to underestimate the growing power of the United States, and then to be shocked and angry when, in 1944, the Americans began acting as the dominant partner in the relationship.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, nationalism, U.S., war

The Times of Appeasement, 1930s

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 842-62:

The Times of London, then co-owned by another member of the Astor clan, John J. Astor, was at the time the daily journal of the British establishment. As Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign minister, put it, in prewar Britain, “Special weight was held to attach to opinions expressed in its leading articles [that is, editorials], on the assumption that these carried some quality of government stamp, if not approbation.” The newspaper fervently supported appeasement throughout the 1930s, to the point that it was willing to tolerate and even embrace Hitlerian tactics. Following the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of shocking political murders carried out on Hitler’s orders in mid-1934, the newspaper soothed, “Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into moderate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National-Socialist officials.”

In 1937, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, confided to his Geneva correspondent, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.” According to the Times’s own official history of itself, published in 1952, those who opposed appeasement were all too often “intellectuals, utopians, sentimentalists and pacifists satisfied with a programme of resistance without the means of resistance.” The Times’s history, with extraordinary nerve, blames those hotheads for making the disastrous policy of appeasement necessary, arguing that the newspaper, “like the Government, was helpless in the face of an apparently isolationist Commonwealth and a pacifist Britain.” What this explanation fails to note is that the role of a leading newspaper is not just to follow opinion but to try to shape it, especially when a major government policy rests on faulty assumptions. And it certainly is not the role of a newspaper editor to suppress news on the grounds that it might bother people or force government officials to reconsider their policies.

King Edward VIII himself, during his eleven-month reign in 1936, supported appeasement. According to one account, when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the king called the German ambassador in London to tell him that he had given Prime Minister Baldwin “a piece of my mind.” To wit, “I told the old-so-and-so that I would abdicate if he made war. There was a frightful scene. But you needn’t worry. There won’t be war.” The king actually would abdicate for other reasons later that same year. During the war, his rightist views and contacts would become a persistent worry for Churchill and British intelligence.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, education, Germany, military, nationalism, philosophy, publishing, war

The Middle-class RAF, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2053-64:

Moreover, it was not the gentlemanly army, nor the powerful navy, but the Royal Air Force that played the most significant role in 1940. The air force was a distinctly middle-class organization, carrying with it a whiff of gasoline and engine lubricants.

Both Orwell and Churchill noticed and commented on the middle-class nature of the RAF. Orwell observed that it was “hardly at all . . . within the ruling-class orbit.”

Indeed, one historian has noted that there were jibes at the time that its members were “motor mechanics in uniforms,” not unlike the nameless men who chauffeured the rich. Evelyn Waugh, always alert to class differences, has a character in one of his novels set during World War II bemoan the fact that a senior Royal Air Force officer has been allowed to join an elite dining club. This gaffe occurred, the character explains, because it came during the Battle of Britain, “when the Air Force was for a moment almost respectable. . . . My dear fellow, it’s a nightmare for everyone.” Aspects of the class system did manage to persist in the RAF. Members of some “auxiliary” units formed by the wealthy and titled of London amused themselves, recalled one pilot, Hugh Dundas, by referring to the regular RAF as “the coloured troops.” Class differences also reached into the cockpit—RAF officers generally enjoyed the helpful privilege of flying the same aircraft every day, while sergeant pilots were assigned whatever machine was available.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, labor, military, war

1930s ruling class “wicked or merely stupid”?

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-801:

In his wartime memoirs, Churchill would refer to the 1930s as his time “in the political wilderness.” Some modern academics have disputed the extent of his political exile, but the facts, and contemporary observations, are on Churchill’s side.

Churchill’s road back to power was long and hard. He remained a wanderer for much of the decade, out of step with his times, which were epitomized by the resolution of the Oxford Union, a university debating society, in February 1933 that it would “in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The nation’s leaders, often in sympathy with the tone of the Oxford discussion, embarked upon a policy of appeasing Germany, making concessions from a position of weakness.

The nature of appeasement—what it was, how to implement it, when to stop it—became the key issue of British politics for most of the 1930s.

It is important here to remember that a narrow but strong strain of sympathy for fascism, and even for Hitler, ran through part of the English aristocracy. Most prominent of those seen as friendly to Germany was Lord Londonderry, a relative of Churchill’s who served in the Cabinet in the early 1930s and then briefly was leader of the House of Lords. Orwell once commented that “whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, Germany, nationalism

Booker T. Washington in Austria-Hungary

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 892-922:

In 1910, Booker T. Washington and the University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park set out for Europe. Their goal was to determine what was propelling millions of Europeans to American shores. “I was curious . . . to learn why it was that so many of these European people were leaving the countries in which they were born and reared, in order to seek their fortunes in a new country and among strangers in a distant part of the world,” Washington explained. Eschewing “palaces, museums, art galleries, ancient ruins, monuments, churches, and graveyards,” he embarked on an inverted grand tour, determined to immerse himself in the “grime and dirt of everyday life.”

Washington’s self-proclaimed mission was to hunt for “the man farthest down” on the European continent. In this quest to explore “the worst” that Europe had to offer, he found rich terrain in Austria-Hungary. During their two-month scavenger hunt for misery, Washington and Park toured Cracow’s Jewish ghetto, Prague’s YMCA, Bohemian mines, Hungarian farms, Viennese slums, Adriatic ports, Galician border towns, and tiny Carpathian villages.

Booker T. Washington hoped that by locating the man farthest down in Europe, he would not only diagnose the root causes of emigration but also find new salves with which to heal American social and racial inequalities. “I believed . . . that if I went far enough and deep enough I should find even in Europe great numbers of people who, in their homes, in their labour, and in their manner of living, were little, if any, in advance of the Negroes in the Southern States,” he reflected. “I wanted to study first hand . . . the methods which European nations were using to uplift the masses of the people who were at the bottom in the scale of civilization.” As he projected the racial politics of the American South onto the terrain of the Austrian empire (which he identified as part of “Southern Europe”), he found many parallels. By the time he returned home, he had concluded that the situation of the Slavs of Austria-Hungary was “more like that of the Negroes in the Southern States than is true of any other class or race in Europe.” Not only were Slavs, like African Americans, “an agricultural people.” They were also distinct from and discriminated by what Washington called “the dominant classes” of Austria-Hungary. “Although they were not distinguished from the dominant classes, as the Negro was, by the colour of their skin, they were distinguished by the language they spoke, and this difference in language seems to have been, as far as mutual understanding and sympathy are concerned, a greater bar than the fact of colour has been in the case of the white man and the black man in the South.” Indeed, Washington concluded that the peasants, workers, and Jews of Eastern Europe actually lived in more debased conditions than African Americans in the South. “There are few plantations in our Southern States where . . . one would not find the coloured people living in more real comfort and more cleanliness than was the case here,” he observed, after touring a desolate Bohemian farm. “Even in the poorest Negro cabins in the South I have found evidences that the floor was sometimes scrubbed, and usually there was a white counterpane on the bed, or some evidence of an effort to be tidy.”

By the time he returned to America, Washington was so disturbed by the poverty he encountered in Austria-Hungary that he began to sympathize with the American movement to restrict immigration. The arrival of millions of destitute East Europeans threatened to create a new kind of “racial problem” in America, he warned. “Whatever else one may say of the Negro, he is, in everything except his colour, more like the Southern white man, more willing and able to absorb the ideas and the culture of the white man and adapt himself to existing conditions, than is true of any race which is now coming into this country.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, democracy, economics, Hungary, labor, language, migration, nationalism, U.S.

Finland’s ‘Continuation War’, 1941-45

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 68-96:

In the Winter War (November 1939–March 1940), Finland was left alone to face Soviet aggression with only a modicum of assistance from Western countries. Many books and studies have been written about this conflict. The extensive coverage in English of this three-and-a-half month struggle should not be surprising—for it represented the gallant fight of a democratic “David” against a totalitarian “Goliath.” The bravery and determination of the Finns against insurmountable odds captured the imagination of the whole world.

The same is not true for the much longer and bloodier war that Finland fought against the Soviet Union at the side of Germany from 1941 to 1944—and their subsequent campaign to drive the Germans out of Finland in 1944–45. It might be true, as Olli Vehviläinen writes, that the war in North Europe was “buried under the avalanche of more newsworthy events in the greater war,” but this was not the only reason.

Professor John H. Wuorinen writes the following in the foreword to his book, based on an anonymous Finnish manuscript, which he edited and published in 1948:

A document which tries to give an objective account therefore cannot be published without unpleasant consequences for author and publisher alike. If this were not so, this book would no doubt have been published in Finland months ago, and the name of the Finnish author would occupy the customary place on the title page.

While it is difficult to pinpoint how long after the war the condition described by Wuorinen persisted, it is worth noting that that the official history of Finland’s involvement in World War II was not finished until 1994, more than thirty years after a similar multi-volume history about the war in Norway was completed.

The war at the side of Germany was not viewed in the same manner in the West as was the Winter War—it was not seen as a courageous and gallant fight to preserve democracy and freedom against a giant totalitarian neighbor. While numerous works on the war have been published in Finland, it is to be deplored that virtually none have been translated into English. The war at the side of Hitler was not one that brought pride to the nation and was a period many Finns would rather forget. Due to the lack of impartial and balanced treatment, large segments of the public in the US and Europe continue to believe that Finland found itself at the side of Germany in 1941 because it was attacked by the Soviet Union.

The Finns also refer to the war at the side of Germany as the “Continuation War,” an attempt to depict it as a continuance of the Winter War in order, perhaps, to obtain a more favorable reception both domestically and internationally. Both this attempt and the insistence that it was an independent war waged against the Soviet Union fail to stand up to close scrutiny. It has proven hard to overcome the fact that Finland was the only democratic country at Hitler’s side.

The Finns’ own views about the war at the side of Germany have changed over the years. In the earlier period there was a tendency to emphasize the error of their decision to align themselves with Germany. Later, they appear to have come to the conclusion that the war was a struggle for survival and that the government made what it thought to be the least harmful choice among bad alternatives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, Germany, military, nationalism, Scandinavia, USSR, war