Monday, August 16, 2004

Plus Ca Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

Excerpts from Orwell’s Essays

Many people are all too painfully aware of the parallels between Orwell’s 1984 and the predicament we find ourselves in today, but Orwell’s other works are worth re-examining in our modern context as well. It seems the more things change the more they stay the same.

In Wells, Hitler and the World State Orwell takes H.G. Wells to task for not taking the Nazi threat seriously enough. At this stage of history many people still regarded Hitler as too absurd to pose a real threat. Orwell criticizes what he perceives as Wells’ idealism in the face of Fascism, which Orwell regards as a luxury afforded only to those with no direct experience of Fascism. The essay is prefaced by excerpts of Wells’ writings which Orwell goes on to commentate upon.

Wells, Hitler and the World State
Written in 1941.

“In 1914 the Hohenzollern army was the best in the world. Behind that screaming little defective in Berlin there is nothing of the sort… Yet our military ‘experts’ discuss the waiting phantom. In their imaginations it is perfect in its equipment and invincible in discipline. Sometimes it is to strike a decisive ‘blow’ through Spain and North Africa and so on, or march through the Balkans, march from the Danube to Ankara, to Persia, to India, or ‘crush Russia’ or ‘pour’ over the Brenner into Italy. The weeks pass and the phantom does none of these things – for one excellent reason. It does not exist to that extent. Most of such inadequate guns and munitions as it possessed must have been taken away from it and fooled away in Hitler’s silly feints to invade Britain. And its raw jerry-built discipline is wilting under the creeping realization that the Blitzkreig is spent, and the war is coming home to roost.”

These quotations are not taken from the Cavalry Quarterly but from a series of newspaper articles by Mr. H.G. Wells…Since they were written, the German army has overrun the Balkans and reconquered Cyrenaica, it can march through Turkey or Spain at such time as may suit it, and it has undertaken the invasion of Russia.

…What has Wells to set against the “screaming little defective in Berlin”? The usual rigmarole about a World State, plus the Sankey Declaration, which is an attempted definition of fundamental human rights, or anti-totalitarian tendency…

…All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands.

…The people who say Hitler is Antichrist, or alternatively Holy Ghost, are nearer an understanding of the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera, not worth taking seriously.

…Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately…The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal, whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.

…He [Wells] was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry, and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

In the 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism Orwell defines the difference between Nationalism and Patriotism, and it is an important distinction. He outlines the three primary characteristics of nationalism, all of which are in abundant evidence today, but the third category Indifference to Reality strikes a particular chord.

Notes on Nationalism

Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longueur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word “nationalism”, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation- that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled “good” or “bad”. But secondly - and this is much more important-I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

…A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist –that is he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating - but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats,triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history as, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the up grade and some hated rival on the down grade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also-since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself-unshakably certain of being in the right.

…It would be an over-simplification to say that all forms of nationalism are the same, even in their mental atmosphere, but there are certain rules that hold good in all cases. The following are the principal characteristics of nationalist thought:

Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not
impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can only relieve by making some sharp retort…

Instability. The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties being transferable.

Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage-torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians- which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by “our” side.

…The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who were loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps were often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles. Many English people heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the war. Their own anti-Semitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact.

Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should-in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918-and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events, which it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied…The primary aim of propaganda is, of course, to influence contemporary opinion, but those who rewrite history do probably believe with part of their minds that they are actually thrusting facts into the past. When one considers the elaborate forgeries that have been committed in order to show that Trotsky did not play a valuable part in the Russian civil war, it is difficult to feel that the people responsible are merely lying. More probably they feel that their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and that one is justified in re-arranging the records accordingly.

Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events. For example, it is impossible to calculate within millions, perhaps tens of millions, the number of deaths caused by the war. The calamities that were constantly being
reported – battles, massacres, famines, revolutions - tended to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One had no way of verifying the facts, one was not even fully certain that they had happened, and one was always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources. What were the rights and wrongs of the Warsaw rising of 1944? Was it true about the Germans gas ovens in Poland? Who was really to blame for the Bengal famine? Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion.
The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakeable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world..

Many of Orwell’s Essays are available online at The University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection.

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