Orwell: The War Commentaries (review)
by Jeffrey Meyers
National Review, 13 March 1987


SEVERAL YEARS ago the amateur scholar, W. J. West, discovered a large cache of Orwell papers in the British Broadcasting Company archives in Reading, England. The literary talks broadcast by Orwell himself during World War II were published as Orwell: The Lost Writings (see NR, Nov. 29, 1985). The War Commentaries, a sequel to the earlier volume, contains 49 weekly news talks to India, which summarize the progress of the war from December 1941, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to March 1943, when the tide had turned after the great victories at Alamein and Stalingrad. West provides an informative introduction and footnotes, though he does not compare the war commentaries to Orwell's London letters to the Partisan Review, which were directed to American readers, ran from January 1941 to the summer of 1946, and used some of the same material.

Orwell's factual accounts reveal his familiarity with the terrain of Burma, where he had been a police officer for five years; his ability to perceive the major turning points of the war: the Battle of Britain in the late summer of 1940, the petering out of the German offensive in Russia in the winter of 1941, and the entrance of Japan into the war; his skillful prophecies about military and political events (though he doubted that Singapore could be taken); and his shocked reaction in December 1942 to the systematic massacre of Jews in German-occupied Poland.

The censored parts of his talks, including an interesting paragraph on the creation of the Loyalist army in the Spanish Civil War, are printed in this volume. And a few rare passages are lively. After stating that there would soon be an official pronouncement defining the position of Admiral Darlan in French North Africa, Orwell ironically adds: "Well, it so happens that his position has been defined in another way. He is dead. He was assassinated two days ago.' It must be said, however, that these news commentaries are terribly dull.

Orwell's talks were a direct response to the lies broadcast to India on Axis radio stations, particularly by the forceful Indian nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose. Orwell hoped to win the sympathy of his Indian listeners by arguing --from examples of conquest and oppression in Korea, China, Malaya, and Burma (which brought the enemy to the border of Bengal)--that there would be no freedom for India under Japanese rule, and that their victory "would postpone Indian independence far longer than the most reactionary British government would either wish or be able to do.' He stresses the Japanese atrocities-- "they have held the peoples down with the club and the machine gun, they have robbed them of their crops and of their raw materials, they have crushed their national movements'--and emphasizes their intention to "pull the world down in ruins before they perish.' Though there is no indication of the specific effect of Orwell's propaganda, he did help keep India loyal to the Allies.

Orwell states that Axis "propaganda has no other purpose than to deceive, [though] it is often possible to infer the real intentions which it conceals.' In January 1942 the Germans admitted that the Russian town of Mojaisk "had fallen, but declared that it was a town of no importance, though they had said just the contrary when they occupied it themselves.' But the BBC propaganda and censorship also tested Orwell's integrity. He found it particularly difficult to describe the American defeat at Corregidor as a "long delaying action in the Philippines which has held up the Japanese attack on Australia,' to justify the arrests of Gandhi and Nehru, to praise the "wise and large-minded' speeches of Stalin, who claimed he had no wish to subjugate anybody (Stalinists had tried to kill Orwell in Spain). Orwell's broadcasts do not show, as West argues, "how strongly he believed in what he was doing.' On the contrary, they demonstrate why he became disgusted and finally quit his work at the BBC.

Orwell's job was quite similar to Winston Smith's job at the Ministry of Truth in 1984, and (as West points out) his experiences and observations at the wartime BBC had a significant influence on that novel. In 1984 there are also banners and slogans on May Day, mass meetings in Trafalgar ("Victory') Square, severe rationing and equalitarian austerity, vast populations stupefied by propaganda and constantly prepared for bad news, a world dominated by superpowers who are always at war with each other but always changing alliances. "The biggest example of such a change,' Orwell writes, "was when the Germans invaded Russia [in 1941]. Up to this moment, they exploited their pretended friendship [pact] with Russia for all it was worth, and described themselves as the allies of a socialist country fighting against plutocracy. They had no sooner invaded Russia than they began to describe themselves as the defenders of European civilization against Bolshevism.'





Note: The copyright for this article is held by the original content creator.