The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Orwell: The War Commentaries

  • Orwell: The War Commentaries, edited and with an introduction by W. J. West. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, 253 pp., $18.95.

Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach

George Orwell, too, had feet of clay.

This will come as no surprise to some, of course. There are at least a few who know already, and a much smaller number who have long known, that no human being ever lives fully up to the standards and expectations of another — not even when the actions on which he or she is to be judged are severely restricted to a narrow and circumscribed realm, like the realm of literature or the realm of philosophy or, as in the present case, the realm of intellectual integrity.

One problem with expecting intellectual integrity from someone is that intellectual integrity is by no means universally recognized as a thing to be desired. At bottom, intellectual integrity means consistency of thought. And consistency of thought has had its prominent detractors for more than a century.

“A foolish consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841, “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

“If you are bound to your past hour,” Max Stirner wrote three years later, “if you must babble today because you babbled yesterday, if you cannot transform yourself each instant, you feel yourself fettered to slavery and benumbed.” “If I am required to be consistent,” Stirner complained, “would I not be bound today and henceforth to my will of yesterday?… My creature — to wit, a particular expression of (my) will — would have become my commander… Because I was a fool yesterday I must remain such my life long.”

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asked in 1855. “Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large-I contain multitudes.”

“The question is,” Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty declared in 1872, “which is to be master” — words, or the human beings who invent and use them?

“Consistency,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Still, most of us — especially those idealistic youngsters among us who are most susceptible to Orwell’s peculiar charm and therefore most likely to adopt him as a kind of secular saint persist in seeing virtue in “practicing what you preach.”

Those who know Orwell best, however, know that it is not at all clear what ideas we should expect him to have practiced, because it is not at all clear what ideas he held. Those who knew him in life agree that he had a quality of great earnestness and sincerity about him, and this quality certainly comes through for most of us in his best writing. But if you look at Orwell’s oeuvre as a coherent whole, you soon find yourself uncertain as to exactly what he did believe.

This uncertainty is only complicated further by the fact that Orwell expressed himself so often through the mode of fiction. It is much more difficult to be confident as to just what a writer is trying to tell you if he dramatizes his message in a story rather than putting it before you straightforwardly in expository prose. This is why, today, both conservative cold warriors like Norman Podhoretz and democratic socialist peace advocates like Irving Howe claim with equal certainty that if Orwell were alive today he would be on their side.

Even in his journalism, however, Orwell is hard to pin down. As his friend and biographer George Woodcock writes, “he was mainly concerned with the implementation of those fairly general ideas which he brought together under the heading of 'decency,' ideas like brotherhood, fair play and honest dealing which he had absorbed from writers like Dickens.”

“What concerned him much more deeply than political programs,” Woodcock continues, “were…general principles of conduct, particularly conduct affecting other men.” To Orwell, “it was important to tell the truth. It was important to preserve the objectivity of history. It was important, above all, to create a world in which every man’s right to self-respect would be jealously preserved.”

“It was when he talked to me about the state,” Woodcock recalls, “that Orwell seemed particularly confused. On one side he was still influenced by the traditions of the sahib class into which he had been born, traditions of dedicated public service coupled with the wielding of unchallenged authority. But he also cultivated an anti-authoritarian strain of thought that was never far from the surface in his reactions to established government. So there were occasions when he would speak…of extensive and disciplined nationalization of industries, of state control over wide sectors of social life. But at other times — and here I felt his real inclinations were emerging — he seemed to envisage a decentralized society…with a great deal of room for individual initiative. Similarly, he would argue that authors should be state-supported, and at other times appear to contradict himself by maintaining that the less a writer had to do with any organized body, the better for him and his work.”

Of course, Woodcock is speaking here of Orwell’s conversation, not his published work. But as he makes clear in his classic study The Crystal Spirit (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966), from which the foregoing quotations have been extracted, it was in Orwell’s conversation that his work, especially his journalism, originated.

One would have a conversation with Orwell during the 1940s, Woodcock writes, “and then, a week or two later, one would find that this conversation had become part of his writing and formed the basis for one of his highly readable essays… I think it was this close relationship between his talk and his writing that enabled Orwell to be at once such a prolific and such a generally successful journalist. Once an idea had taken shape and even a degree of polish in conversation, it was a fairly simple matter to write it down. Some of Orwell’s articles, as he admitted rather shamefacedly, were actually typed out immediately and published in their first draft, without any substantial revision.”

Still, it is his less definite, more ambiguous novels that reach the widest audience and win Orwell most of his most fervent disciples. To the young reader who has just discovered Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, it seems obvious that Orwell is a crusader for truth, individual liberty and the use of the English language — or any language — to express truth and convey beauty rather than to subvert thought and perpetuate tyranny. And for such a reader, the biggest revelation of Orwell: The War Commentaries is likely to be the news that this fighter for truth and justice spent a good part of World War II as a propagandist for the British government, using the English language to mislead and to preserve the undeserved loyalty of a foreign people, a people long oppressed by the British government, a people whose freedom from British domination was a cause he had long given many readers and friends plenty of reason to believe that he fervently supported.

The people in question were the people of India, and Orwell’s job was to research, write, and in a few cases to deliver on the air, weekly radio “commentaries” — news summaries would be a more accurate term — on how the war was going up to the time of broadcast. The summaries were written for the Indian section of the Eastern Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and were beamed into India from December 1941 through mid-March 1943.

As has been noted, Orwell often worked out the ideas for his more topical writing in conversation. Also, like many other great writers, he tended to write not just for the eye and the intellect, but also for what might be called “the mind’s ear.” He wrote, that is, with attention to the sound and rhythm, as well as the sense, of his sentences. Orwell was, therefore, a natural for the medium of radio.

But why was he given this particular assignment by the BBC? Radio was, of course, the television of the 1940s. Television itself existed at that time. The BBC itself had pioneered regularly scheduled television broadcasting in the 1930s. But too few people owned television sets at the outset of World War II for the technology to have much potential as a source of information for the general population, and the war temporarily halted the process by which the manufacture of sets and their placement in homes had been steadily accelerating. For almost everyone alive at the time, the fastest way to learn of events that had just taken place halfway around the world was to listen to the radio.

This is not to say that radio did for World War II what television did for the Vietnam War. Listeners in the early 1940s were not able to hear the battles of the war as they occurred. The news they received from their radio sets was often several days old and was often based on reports which broadcasters had no way of checking. Nevertheless, radio represented a major improvement over the newspapers on which people had had to rely for information during World War I. Thanks to radio, civilian populations during World War II were better informed than civilian populations had ever before been during wartime.

They were also better proselytized. The Axis powers had realized early on that radio could facilitate the dissemination of propaganda as well as the dissemination of “straight news.” Aiming broadcasts into enemy territory had much more potential than dropping leaflets from the air.

Among the Axis broadcasts aimed at undermining the British war effort during 1941 and 1942 was a series directed at India from Berlin and masterminded by the exiled Indian nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose. It was these broadcasts which Orwell was specifically assigned to counter.

India was a major source of military manpower for the Allies, particularly in its African campaigns. It was also something of a powder keg — a country in which an already strong nationalist movement was commanding more and more public support. The British could ill afford to fight a civil war in India at a time when the battle against the Axis powers was already severely taxing its resources. Nor did the British want to risk losing or even weakening their control of India at such a crucial moment. The major figures in the Indian nationalist movement — men like Gandhi and Nehru — were committed to non-violence, and an independent India under their leadership might therefore be neutral in the war. This would deny the Allies access to an important source of troop strength.

All these same considerations made Axis propagandists eager to make what they could of the Indian situation by encouraging the more militant nationalists. Not only could they create problems for the Allies by helping to bring about independence for India, they might also create some solutions for themselves. India, was, for example, rich in certain natural resources which were crucial to the war effort, but which the Axis powers sorely lacked. The most notable of these was rubber — a commodity whose scarcity in Germany led the Reich to invest vast resources in the development of synthetic substitutes. And even if an independent India were neutral in the war, it might well look favorably on trade with nations that had aided its quest for freedom from the British.

For this reason, the German government was happy, early in the 1941, to provide sanctuary to Bose, a major leader of the more militant Indian nationalists and a recent escapee from imprisonment by the British. By the end of that year, the Reich was providing Bose with more than sanctuary. It was financing both his Berlin — based Free India Radio news service and his plan to build an “Indian Army of Liberation in the West” by retraining Indian prisoners of war then being held in Germany and Italy. This special fighting force was to be used eventually to liberate India from British control. The idea for such an Army of Liberation may seem fanciful to some readers today, but in fact it grew to a size of some 3500 men before the Allied victory ended its existence.

Much of this historical background information is to be found in the Introduction, the Appendix and the notes which W.J. West had provided for Orwell: The War Commentaries. (The Appendix, which is especially helpful, includes the text of several of Bose’s broadcasts over Free India Radio.) But for much of it, I was forced to turn to other sources, including West’s earlier volume, Orwell: The Lost Writings (New York: Arbor House, 1985), a collection of mostly literary scripts Orwell wrote for the BBC during the same period. (Both volumes are compiled from materials recently uncovered by West in the BBC archives.) Time and again, the reader of The War Commentaries is referred to the earlier volume for supplementary information. On occasion, he is referred to the earlier volume even for essential information — information without which it would be impossible to assess the importance, the truthfulness or the purpose of Orwell’s news summaries. This may be an effective strategy for selling two books instead of one, or for saving the publisher money on the price of paper for the second volume, but it is an annoyance and a disservice to the serious reader.

Nor is this the only fault the serious reader will find with this book. There are also a few curious, apparent lapses of scholarship. At one point, for example, when Orwell refers in a news summary dated 4 April 1942 to the “paid Indian mouthpieces” of the Japanese, West notes that this is “one of Orwell’s very rare references to his main opponent, Subhas Chandra Bose and his supporters.” In fact, however, Subhas Chandra Bose did not move his operations to Japan, or begin working closely with the Japanese on common goals, until nearly a year later. Orwell’s reference was probably to another Bose, Rashbehari Bose, a militant Indian nationalist who had made his home in Japan since around the time of World War I.

The most important failure of West’s book, however, lies not with its editor’s scholarship, but in the fundamentally uninteresting character of its contents. Pieces that were written to be read aloud on radio and then forgotten are seldom effective in printed form, especially if they are, as in the present case, for example, highly repetitive. A radio writer cannot assume that the audience this week was also listening the week before, and he certainly cannot assume that all his listeners have tuned in faithfully every week from the beginning of his broadcasts. Therefore, he repeats certain essential items of information week after week, script after script, so that those who have just tuned in can understand what is being said. In a book, such endless repetition is deadening. One can only bear being told about the potential importance to the Japanese of the Burma Road as a supply route so many times before the impulse to skip and skim becomes irresistible.

Moreover, these pieces contain almost no political analysis — no “commentary,” in the strict sense of that word. The analytical content of all 49 pieces collected here, if out together, would scarcely fill one page. In part this may be the result of censorship. Each of Orwell’s scripts had to be submitted to a censor before being broadcast. Also, analysis seems not to have been a part of Orwell’s job in preparing these scripts. They appear to have been intended primarily as news reports. They are “slanted,” of course, in the sense that they obviously regard the Allied cause with favor. But their slant becomes evident more through simple sloganeering than through any kind of thoughtful discussion of issues.

Orwell writes, for example, that the war is an effort by “the free nations of the world” to “put an end to Fascist aggression.” One wonders if the Soviet Union qualified in those days as one of “the free nations of the world.” We know that Orwell and other BBC propagandists were under explicit pressure to soft pedal or avoid any criticism of the Stalin regime, which only a short time before, during the period of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, had been a favorite target of official criticism by the British. West quotes at length from an official memorandum that established guidelines for writers like Orwell on this issue. It delineates important “differences” between the Soviet and German styles of dictatorship which supposedly justify cooperating with the one and working indefatigably for the destruction of the other. This memo is curiously reminiscent of more recent attempts by certain conservatives to explain why we should fight to the death against “totalitarian” regimes but be willing to ally ourselves with “authoritarian” regimes, no smatter how repressive they may be.

In other scripts Orwell writes of the virtual unanimity of public support for the Allied cause. He informs his listeners that opposition by Americans “to the idea of being involved in a war abroad, and specially in Europe,” which had been common before the United States entered the war, “has entirely disappeared,” and that “the ordinary people” of England “would welcome greater sacrifices” if they would aid the war effort. As West notes, these comments bear a certain resemblance to the government broadcasts in Nineteen Eighty-four, with their incessant talk of the happiness with which the common people accept sacrifice as the price of Oceania’s victory against whatever nation is its enemy of the moment.

It is well known that the World War II-era BBC was Orwell’s model for the satanic Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four. Why did Orwell consent to do the work of an institution which he regarded as having within it the seed of so monstrous an evil? As George Woodcock explains it, Orwell was “a thorough English patriot, dedicated to defending the people and the countryside of England even if he had little use for most of its existing institutions.” Also, Woodcock writes, “he believed that the left-wing libertarian socialism which he had adopted in 1936 could only survive if the Nazis were defeated.” W.J. West concurs with this image of Orwell and adds that while he “believed passionately that India ought to be given her freedom at the earliest possible moment,” he “also saw clearly that there were far greater dangers for the Indian people in domination by a non-English-speaking totalitarian power than in the mere continuation of British rule for a few more years, or even until the war ended.”

Orwell told George Woodcock in 1942 that “I doubt whether I shall stay in this job much longer, but while here I consider that I have kept our propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been.” He resigned the following year, and took a job as literary editor of a left-wing London paper, The Tribune. The work he had done for the BBC, as this collection makes clear, was by no means “disgusting.” It was, however, consistently mundane and virtually without intellectual content. Orwell completists and serious students of World War II propaganda will want to own this book. Most general readers, however, will probably want to pass it by. It won’t afford them much entertainment or edification, and it may well undermine any delusions they have about the purity of heart and the intellectual integrity of the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

About the author

JEFF RIGGENBACH is a radio producer and commentator whose articles on literature and politics have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and New Libertarian.

Bibliographic information
Author: Riggenbach, Jeff
Title: Orwell: The War Commentaries (review)
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Fall 1987
Issue: Volume 7 number 3
Location: Page 353
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.