Through the Lens of Nineteen Eighty-Four

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Colin Riley

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Postwar through the Lens of Nineteen Eighty-Four

April 4th, 1984. On this date in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the reader finds himself or herself immersed in an alternate future contingent on a different outcome of the Second World War. While Big Brother, Ingsoc, and Oceania may be fictitious terms courtesy of the mind of George Orwell, they were certainly inspired by Stalin’s communist Soviet Union and Hitler’s fascist Nazi Germany. Just so, the three main Party slogans were inspired by Stalin’s wartime orders and rules. Even though all three slogans are contradictions in themselves, they successfully weaken the independence of Oceania’s people and force them to live in a constant state of fear, an emotion that was all too real before, during, and after the Second World War. Orwell’s Party slogans in Nineteen Eighty-Four manifest Europe’s fear of a postwar totalitarian takeover, an all too tangible phenomenon which Judt discusses in his work Postwar.

“WAR IS PEACE,” the first of three Party slogans, refers to the perpetual war which is the norm in Orwell’s imaginary dystopia. In twentieth-century Europe, however, the possibility of perpetual war was not an unrealistic fear. Indeed, French Marshal Foch prophetically declared after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” (Carver). Not even the best efforts of President Wilson and his brainchild, the League of Nations, were enough to hold world war at bay. Both Judt and René Girard agree in Postwar and Battling to the End respectively that the League of Nations, and ultimately the United Nations, had no real power when it came to global peacekeeping. Judt claims, “There was a feeling among Western policymakers that the League of Nations, and the minority clauses in the Versailles Treaties, had failed and that it would be a mistake even to try and resurrect them” (Judt 27). Since the aforementioned institutions were ineffective at preventing conflict, it was inevitable that world war would erupt again.

While Orwell focused upon the aftermath of world war in Nineteen Eighty-Four, authors such as Virginia Woolf explicitly wrote of the heightened tension which transfixed Europe before the outbreak of war in 1939. In Between the Acts, Woolf’s character Giles Oliver compares Europe to an enraged hedgehog, “bristling with guns, poised with planes…at any moment guns would rake that land into furrows; planes splinter Bolney Minster into smithereens” (Woolf 66-67). In many countries, this palpable dread coupled with economic and social instability, made it easy for the public to blame the government for their suffering. It is this exact reason that the Ministry of Peace in Nineteen Eighty-Four is in charge of continually waging war.

Big Brother’s government is brilliant in that their constant vilifying of the other superstates keeps the people of Oceania united against a common enemy. The status quo is so dependent upon this mentality, Julia believes, that she accuses the government of firing rocket bombs on London themselves “just to keep people frightened” (Orwell 102). Judt would disagree with Julia on this point, writing, “Above all, violence became part of daily life. The ultimate authority of the modern state has always rested in extremis on its monopoly of violence and its willingness to deploy force if necessary” (Judt 37). According to this theory, the government of Oceania derives its strength not from clandestine black flag operations, but from the ultimate authority of Big Brother and the fear of reprisal against those who would commit “thoughtcrimes.” While this quote from Postwar is taken out of context, “Surviving the war was one thing, surviving the peace another,” it aptly applies to the government of Nineteen Eighty-Four (Judt 21). While Oceania is many years removed from the atomic global war, the society of Airstrip One still perpetually lives in fear of war with foreign superstates, courtesy of the Party’s effective propaganda.

The second slogan, “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” speaks heavily to life on the home front during the Second World War. As Judt reminds us, the war affected everyone from top to bottom, regardless of if their country was occupied or free: ““Europeans felt hopeless, they were exhausted – and for good reason. The European war that began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ended with Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945 was a total war. It embraced civilians as well as soldiers” (Judt 13). However, this slogan best epitomizes the heavily regulated lifestyle of those living under totalitarian regimes in Nazi-occupied Europe and the Soviet Union. Although there was a wide discrepancy between living in the slave-nation Poland and relatively-untouched Vichy France, daily life was unequivocally different under occupation than it was beforehand. Judt writes, “To live normally in occupied Europe meant breaking the law: in the first place the laws of the occupiers (curfew, travel regulations, race laws, etc) but also conventional laws and norms as well” (Judt 37). While there were certainly as many resistance members as there were collaborators in these countries, the minds of Orwell and other authors produce worlds where resistance always leads to death or total indoctrination.

In his novel The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse creates the ideal team player in Joseph Knecht, a man whose last name means “servant.” The Castalian Order to which Joseph belongs, does not “approve of the rebel who is driven by his desires and passions to infringements upon law and order; we find all the more worthy of our reverence the memory of those who tragically sacrificed themselves for the greater whole” (Hesse 13). Joseph exemplifies this heroism in his life’s work for the order which culminates in his advancement to Magister Ludi. However, it is when Joseph comes to doubt his loyalty to Castalia, seeing it as an “ivory tower” that is oblivious to the world’s problems, that his downfall begins. After leaving the order to become a tutor, he drowns trying to emulate his younger, fitter protégé. Disregarding this novel’s inherent message that the apprentice will always outstrip the master, Hesse’s writing also aligns with the slogan of the Party. Once he shed his slavery to the Castalian Order and embraced his freedom, Joseph met his end.

Winston Smith completes a similar transformation in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s everyman questions the all-powerful Party, pondering, “How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished?” (Orwell 37). While he secretly hates the Party and dreams of overthrowing Big Brother inside his only true personal property, “the few cubic centimeters inside” his skull, even that freedom is taken away from him during political re-education. As the novel closes and Winston engages in a “blissful dream” in which he is executed, Orwell’s message is crystal clear: the man who is independent is doomed to fail (Orwell 197). At the same time, since Winston is ultimately subjected to the collective will of the Party, he is no longer free from the sin of want and individual thought.

“IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is the slogan most directly derived from the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Both Hitler and Stalin embraced this concept, preferring to present a processed falsehood to their impressionable populations so as not to tempt them with the realities of the truth. Judt highlights a fitting example of this practice in his recounting of the Nuremberg Trials, when the Nazi defendants publicly compared the post-war populations expulsions with the wartime ethnic cleanses. Truthfully, the two were nothing alike since for the latter, “the expellers accompanied the expelled to ensure that they [displaced peoples] are kept in ghettos and then either kill them or use them as forced labor” (Judt 27). While the world came to know the truths of Hitler’s crimes, Orwell was prescient enough to realize that this was heavily reliant upon the victor of the Second World War.

In a May 1944 letter to H.J. Willmett, Orwell discusses the potential growth of totalitarianism in both Great Britain and the United States, specifically the regulation of history by the victors. “Hitler can say that the Jews started the war,” writes Orwell, “and if he survives that will become official history [...] but if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuehrer wished it” (Howe 280). Indeed, it is the inability of the people to recognize contradictions such as these that cement the power of leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Big Brother. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is the Ministry of Truth which is charged with doctoring history books to reflect Party ideology, which of course must first be approved by Big Brother.

Orwell was not the only author of the era to write about the repressing of individual thoughts in favor of party ideology. In Karin Boye’s Kallocain, drugs are used to detect individual acts and thoughts of rebellion, also known as “thoughtcrimes” in Orwell’s novel. The drug itself, for which the novel is named, is the final step towards individuals of the state becoming a “happy, healthy cell in the state organism” (Boye 158). Boye is said to have directly drawn influence for her novel from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, explaining the following musing from the novel’s protagonist, Leo Kall: “For, from thoughts and feelings, words and actions are born. How then could these thoughts and feelings belong to the individual? Doesn’t the whole fellow-soldier belong to the state? To whom should his thoughts and feelings belong then, if not to the state?” (Boye 13). While one could write off this passage as an unrealistic, fictionalized version of brainwashing, the phrase, “fellow-soldier” belonging to the state” is eerily similar to the Soviet “comrade” fighting for Mother Russia.

Throughout Postwar, Judt cannot express enough how colossal an effect the Second World War had upon Europe as well as the whole world. Even after the last tank rolled out and the final troop column marched away, the collective sense of conflict which had gripped Europe for six years would take far longer to dissipate. Judt writes, “The post-war impact of these European civil wars was immense. In a simple sense they meant that the war in Europe did not finish in 1945, with the departure of the Germans: it is one of the most traumatic features of civil war that even after the enemy is defeated he remains in place; and with him the memory of the conflict […] in the truest sense of a much-abused term, they [Nazi and Soviet occupations] transformed World War Two – Hitler’s war – into a social revolution” (Judt 35). Orwell created a social revolution just like this one in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel which will forever reflect a world which could have come about had Hitler triumphed.

Work Cited

Boye, Karin. Kallocain. Print.

Carver, Michael. The War Lords: Military Commanders of the Twentieth Century. Weidenfield

& Nicolson, 1976. Print.

Judt, Tony. Postwar. Penguin, 2006. Print.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ed. Irving Howe. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.


Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1969. Print.
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