Churchill, Orwell and “1984”

Churchill, Orwell and “1984”

(Update.) George Orwell’s pre­scient mas­ter­piece 1984 turns 73 years old this year, and is still in the news. Thought­ful peo­ple say this is because we are, post-Covid, with gov­ern­ment ever increas­ing its intru­sion into our lives, clos­er to the total­i­tar­i­an world Orwell imag­ined than ever.

Some review­ers of 1984 have found the need to take a whack at Churchill. One of those was Robert Har­ris in The Sun­day Times, where he wrote with sin­gu­lar inac­cu­ra­cy: “Giv­en that only five years [before the book], Churchill, Roo­sevelt and Stal­in had divid­ed up the world into ‘zones of influ­ence’ at the Teheran Con­fer­ence, [Orwell’s] vision did not seem entire­ly fantastic.”


What is fan­tas­tic is where peo­ple get such notions. “Zones of influ­ence” came up not at Teheran but at the Moscow  (“Tol­stoy”) Con­fer­ence between Churchill and Stal­in a year lat­er. It divid­ed influ­ence in for­mer occu­pied Ger­man ter­ri­to­ries, by then being occu­pied by the Red Army.

Churchill thought this as an expe­di­ent, with final arrange­ments to be made at a peace con­fer­ence. Stal­in had some­thing more per­ma­nent in mind. In any case, it was not “divid­ing up the world.”

The main  result of that meet­ing was to allow Churchill to save Greece from a com­mu­nist takeover—temporarily. (Stal­in had anoth­er go a few years lat­er). And the only rea­son we even know about the Moscow agree­ment was because Churchill freely described it in his war mem­oirs. (See “Athens, 1944.”)

Churchill on Orwell

Of WSC’s opin­ion of Orwell we know lit­tle, except from his doc­tor Lord Moran’s “diaries.” That was in 1953, dur­ing WSC’s sec­ond pre­mier­ship, three years after Orwell’s untime­ly death at age 46. Churchill told his physi­cian that was read­ing a “remark­able” nov­el. He did not, how­ev­er, men­tion 1984 in his speech­es. Nor, as far as I know, did he allude pub­licly to Orwell’s oeu­vre.

Orwell on Churchill

Sir Fitzroy Maclean once asked Tito, “a most per­cep­tive man, what had struck him most about Win­ston. Tito replied instant­ly and I thought it was very clever of him: ‘His human­i­ty. He is so human.’ By this cen­tral human­i­ty, and his states­man­ship and courage, Churchill did some­thing that not many politi­cians seem to do nowa­days. He caught people’s imag­i­na­tion and won their affec­tion.” (See Fitzroy Maclean, Wit and Wisdom.)

Orwell, like Tito a man of the Left, held exact­ly the same view. This was not­ed elo­quent­ly by Robert Pilpel, quot­ing Orwell in Finest Hour 142, Spring 2009:

His writ­ings are more like those of a human being than of a pub­lic fig­ure…. And whether or not 1940 was any­one else’s finest hour, it was cer­tain­ly Churchill’s…. One has to admire in him not only his courage but also a cer­tain large­ness and genial­i­ty…. The British peo­ple have gen­er­al­ly reject­ed his poli­cies, but they have always had a lik­ing for him, as one can see from the tone of the sto­ries told about him…. 

At the time of the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion, for instance, it was rumoured that what he actu­al­ly said, when record­ing his speech for broad­cast, was: “We will fight on the beaches…we will fight in the streets…we’ll throw bot­tles at the bas­tards; it’s about all we’ve got left!” One may assume that this sto­ry is untrue, but at the time it was felt that it ought to be true. It was a fit­ting trib­ute from ordi­nary peo­ple to the tough and humor­ous old man whom they would not accept as a peace­time leader [in 1945] but whom in the moment of dis­as­ter they felt to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of themselves.

“From one giant guardian of our heritage to another”

I’ve always loved Bob Pilpel’s con­clu­sion, redo­lent of what Win­ston Churchill tru­ly meant to his contemporaries—of many polit­i­cal per­sua­sions. Some might flat­ly dis­agree with him. Some would argue ham­mers and tongs across the floor of the House of Com­mons. But under­ly­ing it all was a ground­ing of mutu­al respect. Pilpel concludes:

Speak­ing as a con­sid­er­ably less tough and more sen­ti­men­tal old man, I con­fess that Orwell’s gen­tle accolade—from one giant guardian of our her­itage to anoth­er on the oppo­site end of the polit­i­cal spectrum—always makes my eyes mist over. I offer this con­fes­sion will­ing­ly, even cheer­ful­ly, hap­py in the knowl­edge that many admir­ers of Churchill, no mat­ter what their age, may go me one bet­ter and shed a tear.

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