Churchill & Orwell:
The Fight for Freedom
Penguin Press. 339 pp. $28.
Reviewed by Lynne Olson
They were two very different men - one a towering figure on the world stage, the other a quiet observer - who never met and apparently had little influence on each other. For Thomas E. Ricks, though, what connects Winston Churchill and George Orwell is their resistance to the spreading threat of totalitarianism in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. They were kindred spirits, Ricks writes, who "steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association."
Churchill's resistance took the form of political action and powerful rhetoric. Orwell, whose sole weapon was his pen, stood up against tyranny on a broader scale: His main focus was Soviet repression, but he also lashed out against the abuse of authority and denial of truth by institutions everywhere. "His mission," Ricks points out, "was to write the facts as he saw them, no matter where that took him, and to be skeptical of everything he read, especially when it came from or comforted those wielding power."
Freedom of speech in Britain, for one thing, took some hard knocks during the war, with Orwell as one of the victims. And Britain and other Allies went to great lengths to placate Josef Stalin and keep him fighting on the eastern front. Orwell justly complained about it.
When he submitted Animal Farm, his satire on Soviet totalitarianism, to British publishers in 1943, it was rejected by every editor who read it. He was furious. Animal Farm was finally published in August 1945, three days after the end of the war. It was an instant best seller, as was 1984, which has sold more than 25 million copies since its publication in June 1949, six months before Orwell's death.
More than half of Churchill and Orwell is a detailed recounting of Churchill's life, much familiar and with little or no relevance to Ricks' main topic. The book would have benefited from a deeper exploration of the conflict between Orwell and Churchill's government over the complexities of truth and its suppression - an issue with significance today.
Still, for all of Churchill's shortcomings, there's no question that, overall, he and Orwell demonstrated moral courage and a fierce dedication to the importance of democracy and individual freedom - increasingly rare qualities today that Ricks rightly celebrates.
Olson's latest book is "Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War." This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.