How useful is Orwell as a witness on the Home Front during the Second World War?

As a witness on the Home Front in World War Two, George Orwell witnessed the war unfolding around him, whilst continuously aiming to get more and more involved on a humanitarian level.  After being ‘appalled’ at being graded unfit for military service in June 1940, Orwell turned to the Home Guard in order to satisfy his urge to contribute towards the ‘fight against Fascism’.[1]  In August 1941 Orwell joined the BBC Eastern Service, before leaving in November 1943 to become an editor for the Socialist journal Tribune.[2]  Being subjected to the same stringent censorship regulations that were placed over all writers at the time, Orwell seemed to buy into the State-managed propaganda, often writing diary entries and articles that were heavily supportive of the war effort, and rarely overly critical.  This essay will explore how far Orwell could be deemed useful as a witness on the Home Front during the Second World War by looking into his involvement in the propaganda machine; by exploring the effects of censorship on his works and on him as a person; and by looking at the effects of his patriotic stance, specifically motivated by his involvement in the Home Guard, on his writings and actions; before concluding that Orwell, as a mere character who responded to the situation around him, gives a strong depiction of what the world of wartime propaganda on the Home Front was all about.  Before exploring any of this, the essay will firstly explain its narrow focus, and give the working definition for ‘witness’ that will be carried forward throughout the essay.

One of the issues with looking into Orwell as a witness on the Home Front during the Second World War is the absolute vastness of his writings during this time.  In just one such year, from August 1941 to August 1942, Peter Davison has chronicled an astounding 588 articles, essays, letters and broadcasts by George Orwell.[3]  In order to avoid the mammoth task of comparing the writing of even just one year of Orwell’s works, it has been important to focus this essay on one distinct part of Orwell’s life during the Second World War.  This is so that potentially reductionalist generalisations need not necessarily be made, whilst allowing the study to assess the usefulness of Orwell as a witness in regards to the scope that is taken, and irrespective of his usefulness as a witness in relation to other topics and themes during the war.  Specifically, this essay will look at Orwell as a witness of, and as repressed by, propaganda and censorship on the Home Front.  A case study will be used on Orwell’s representation of the Home Guard at different times during the war, and how the role that Orwell played in the propaganda machine affected his role as an effective ‘witness’ of the Home Guard.  Thus, by directly focussing on Orwell in relation to propaganda and censorship, and by specifically looking at his reporting of the Home Guard, this essay will be able to argue how useful Orwell should be considered as a ‘witness’ on the Home Front in this regard.

The problems with considering Orwell as a ‘witness’ on the Home Front are founded in the very definition of ‘witness’.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of witness as ‘[t]o bear witness to (a fact or statement); to testify to, attest; to furnish oral or written evidence of’.[4]  Whilst Orwell would have clearly beared witness to all of the events that happened around him during the Second World War, this is a fact that is synonymous with every other person in Britain during the war, and thus hardly stands Orwell apart as being unique as a witness during the war.  This essay is more intested in the rest of the definition, which involve requiring an analysis of how far Orwell gave pure evidence towards the events on the Home Front within his wartime writings.  This essay will thus look specifically at how useful Orwell is as a witness on the Home Front in relation to the evidence that he gave in his wartime writings about what was happening.

There are many possible issues with looking at the usefulness of Orwell as a ‘witness’ on the Home Front.  Three such issues that will be looked at for the purpose of this essay are the reliability of his writings in portraying a complete picture; the restrictions on his writings imposed by censorship; and how Orwell wrote differently for the British audience as compared to the American and the Indian audiences.

A factor which significantly affects how useful Orwell is to be taken as a witness on the Home Front is his involvement in the wartime propaganda machine.  Orwell was supporting and actively feeding the government’s propaganda system during the war, which is notably backed up by the fact that he was a BBC broadcaster in India for two ‘wasted years’ from August 1941 to November 1943.[5]  However, one must look far beyond the BBC broadcasts to find the extent to which Orwell considered himself to be a part of the propaganda machine.  One can look to his 1948 essay ‘Writers and the Leviathon’ to clarify this.  In stating that ‘[s]ometimes, if a writer is honest, his writings and his political activities may actually contradict one another. There are occasions when that is plainly undesirable: but then the remedy is not to falsify one’s impulses, but to remain silent’, Orwell gives a discourse that could explain how his writing style evidently changed during the war.[6]  This illustrates how problematic it is to relate Orwell’s writings during the Second World War to his long-retained Socialistic persona.  It is clear that Orwell, in this statement, is excusing himself for being ‘silent’ during the ‘undesirable’ times, perhaps illustrating his fear of the difficulties that he would have had in being an outspoken writer during the war.  He goes on later in the article to mention about how the ‘saner self…stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature’.[7]  This later statement shows Orwell as suggesting that, whilst he may have written many commentaries in different forms during the war that had seemed very patriotic and supportive of the war-effort, he wrote them deceptively and was, in fact, still a free-thinking radical.  These comments by Orwell make it very difficult to take any of his works during the war as holding true ‘Orwellian’ value, and thus depict him as being a witness very much in the style that was dictated by the propaganda authorities.

The restriction that Orwell’s authorities seemed to have over him can more reasonably be explored in relation to the role of the censor on Orwell’s works during the war.  Firstly, it should be acknowledged that, with Orwell’s wife Eileen working at the Whitehall Censorship Department during the war, the role of the censor must be seen as having been very familiar to him.[8]  Despite this, Orwell was still censored on numerous occasions.  Two such notable occasions of being censored whilst working for the BBC, for a programme in the series ‘The Story of Fascism’ on the Spanish Civil War and for a proposed talk on the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, show the kind of topics that he would be censored for.[9]  It must be acknowledged, furthermore, that these topics both had the themes of anarchism running through them and, as Davison suggested, the decisions to attempt to air the programmes were uncharacteristically clear errors in judgement on Orwell’s part.[10]  This, then, raises the theory that perhaps Orwell chose to submit programmes to be censored, as to show elements of his rebelliousness during a time of near-Conservativism whilst working for the BBC.  However, it can be deemed that normally Orwell conformed by the guidelines laid out by the Censorship Department.  Importantly, Orwell appeared to be very affected by his experiences of being censored.  In an expression of clear frustration, Orwell, wrote in his diary regarding programmes being cancelled on the BBC due to censorship that ‘one is constantly putting sheer rubbish on the air because of having talks which sounded too intelligent cancelled at the last moment.’[11]  In the ‘lost’ proposed preface to Animal Farm, Orwell wrote about the ‘sinister fact’ in literary censorship being that ‘it is largely voluntary’.[12]  In regards to Orwell’s writings, this suggestion can be clearly seen in comparing his writings in the mid-1940s.  Whilst from 1941 to 1943 he experienced censorship on a few occasions in working for the BBC, as has been outlined above, from 1943 he regained his literary freedom in writing for the Socialist journal Tribune.[13]  Lowe suggests that Orwell’s column in Tribune, entitled ‘As I Please’, importantly gave Orwell a free output, as through this column he ‘was not prepared to follow guidelines about what was “important” or “permissible” in discussion’.[14]  It seems to be clear that Orwell aspired towards producing high-quality work for the BBC, and it was due to being continuously let down by the struggles with the censorship boards that he moved on to working for Tribune.  However, during this time one aspect of life for Orwell, of being in the Home Guard, stands out for having been complimented by Orwell more than any other.  His representation of the Home Guard will thus next be explored, to analyse how usefully Orwell was able to convey the Home Guard within the systems of propaganda.

The reliability of Orwell’s writingswas affected significantly by the patriotic stance that Orwell accumulated whilst in the Home Guard.  Orwell’s fuzzy feelings towards the Home Guard seemed to begin as he explained, in a London Letter in 1941, that ‘[t]he Home Guard is the most anti-Fascist body existing in England at this moment, and at the same time is an astonishing phenomenon, a sort of People’s Army officered by Blimps’.[15]  As Lowe explained, Orwell saw his role in the Home Guard as being ‘both with a gun and with a typewriter’, with his emphasis on ‘safeguarding what made Britain “home”‘ being ‘both a practical and a necessary cultural action’.[16]  This importantly could identify why Orwell took the ‘silent’ option regarding the British propaganda machine, as has been previously explored.  Whilst he criticised the ‘the stupidity of its foreign propaganda’, in referrence specifically to the propaganda machine of the BBC in India, he also crucially contributed to this ‘stupid’ overseas propaganda by writing 56 of the news reports for the BBC in India from 1941-3.[17],[18]  This action can be traced back to his strong anti-Fascist sentiments, as, as Paczulla states, Orwell’s news reports held the purpose of counterbalancing the pro-Nazi propaganda of the Bengali extremist Subhas Chandra Bose.[19]  Thus, it is clear to see that Orwell’s supportive role in both the physical Home Guard and in the wartime propaganda machine were due to his anti-Fascist sentiments.  Orwell, as a witness on the Home Front for the BBC, must therefore be viewed as being far from an objective writer, and thus can only be read as a witness of the part of the Home Front that he decided to write on at the time in order to suit the purpose of defending the British culture against the Fascists.

George Orwell, as a wartime propagandist who mostly followed the duties that he felt he needed to satisfy being a part of the Home Guard and thus to contribute to the war effort, evidently kept much of his frustrations from wartime Britain inside as he looked towards the greater struggle.  Fascism, as has been shown, was evidently a much more severe threat than any restriction on civil liberties during wartime Britain appeared to hold.  It was in this struggle in working alongside the British State, which he has historically had many disagreements with, to defeat Fascism that Orwell found himself become a conformist as a wartime journalist and writer.  It may have been very helpful to Orwell that his wife worked within the Censorship Department, for it can assumed that much knowledge on censorship would have been passed on to Orwell by his wife so that he could understand how to play the censorship system.  The two times that have been listed of him getting programmes censored on the BBC, for programmes about anarchism, may have been censored rather symbolically in that, whilst Orwell was incapable of producing a strong critique himself of the State at the time, anarchism as a symbol is normally associated with being the strongest critique of even the concept of statehood.  After the war, this critique was unleashed in unfathomable fashion, as the dystopian novel Nineteen EightyFour was published.  This seminal work perhaps portrays, as Paczulla suggests, all of what Orwell himself could not during the war.[20]  As a witness on the Home Front, George Orwell is useful in portraying, as a character caught up in the war, just how far the British systems of wartime propaganda and censorship, alongside his own esteemed patriotism, could take its toll on his revolutionary, intellectual mind.

 

Bibliography

 

Books

Davison, P. ed., George Orwell: All Propaganda is Lies 1941-1942. 1998, London: Secker &                    Warburg.

Newsinger, J., Orwell’s Politics. 1999, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Journals/articles

Costello, D., ”My Kind of Guy’: George Orwell and Dwight Macdonald, 1941-49′. 2005, Journal of             Contemporary History, 40(1), pp. 79-94.

Fleay, C., and Sanders, M.L., ‘Looking Into The Abyss: George Orwell at the BBC’. 1989, Journal          of Contemporary History, 24(3), pp. 503-518.

Keeble, R., ‘Orwell as War Correspondent: A Reassessment’. 2001, Journalism Studies, 2(3), pp.   393-406.

Lowe, P.,
– ‘Englishness in a Time of Crisis: George Orwell, John Betjeman, and the Second World   War’. 2009, The Cambridge Quarterly, 38(3), pp. 243-263.
– ‘Resistance and Rebuilding: The Wartime Writings of George Orwell and Albert Camus’.            2009, English Studies, 90(3), pp. 305-327.

Orwell, G.,
– ‘London Letters’. Partisan Review, March 1941-August 1943.
– ‘The Freedom of the Press’. In Orwell, G., Animal Farm. 2003, London: Penguin,
pp. 103-13.
– ‘Writers and the Leviathon’. 1948, Politics and Letters, [Online] Available from:               http://georgeorwellnovels.com/essays/writers-and-leviathan/ [Accessed 22.01.13].

Paczulla, J., ‘”Talking to India”: George Orwell’s Work at the BBC, 1941-1943’. 2007, Canadian  Journal of History, 42(1), pp. 53-70.

Rossi, J., ‘America’s View of George Orwell’. 1981, The Review of Politics, 43(4), pp. 572-81.

 

Online

Davidson, P., ‘Orwell at the BBC: Two Wasted Years?’. 2011, The Orwell Society, [Online] Available        from: http://www.orwellsociety.com/2011/11/22/orwell-at-the-bbc-two-wasted-years-by- prof-peter-davison/ [Accessed: 26.01.13].

OED Online, ‘witness, v.’. 2012, Oxford University Press, [Online] Available from:                                    http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/229714?rskey=Y5YSjH&result=2&isAdvanced=false                 [Accessed: 25.01.13].

Orwell, G., ‘Orwell Diaries 1938-1942’. 2012, The Orwell Prize, [Online] Available from:               http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/ [Accessed: 26.01.13].


[1]    Peter Lowe, ‘Resistance and Rebuilding: The Wartime Writings of George Orwell and Albert Camus’. 2009, English Studies, 90(3), pp. 305-327, pp. 307-8.

[2]    Jutta Paczulla, ‘”Talking to India”: George Orwell’s Work at the BBC, 1941-1943’. 2007, Canadian Journal of History, 42(1), pp. 53-70, p. 53.

[3]    Peter Davison ed., George Orwell: All Propaganda is Lies 1941-1942. 1998, London: Secker & Warburg.

[4]    OED Online, ‘witness, v.’. 2012, Oxford University Press, [Online] Available from: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/229714?rskey=Y5YSjH&result=2&isAdvanced=false [Accessed: 25.01.13].

[5]    Paczulla, ‘”Talking to India”: George Orwell’s Work at the BBC, 1941-1943’, p. 53.

[6]    George Orwell, ‘Writers and the Leviathon’. 1948, Politics and Letters, [Online] Available from: http://georgeorwellnovels.com/essays/writers-and-leviathan/ [Accessed 22.01.13].

[7]    George Orwell, ‘Writers and the Leviathon’.

[8]    Peter Lowe, ‘Resistance and Rebuilding: The Wartime Writings of George Orwell and Albert Camus’. 2009, English Studies, 90(3), pp. 305-327, p. 307.

[9]    Peter Davidson, ‘Orwell at the BBC: Two Wasted Years?’. 2011, The Orwell Society, [Online] Available from: http://www.orwellsociety.com/2011/11/22/orwell-at-the-bbc-two-wasted-years-by-prof-peter-davison/ [Accessed: 26.01.13].

[10]  Davidson, ‘Orwell at the BBC: Two Wasted Years?’.

[11]  George Orwell, ‘Orwell Diaries 1938-1942,’ entry 21st June 1942. 2012, The Orwell Prize, [Online] Available from: http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/2012/06/21/21-6-42/ [Accessed: 26.01.13].

[12]  George Orwell, ‘The Freedom of the Press’. In George Orwell, Animal Farm. 2003, London: Penguin, pp. 104-5.

[13]  Peter Davidson, ‘Orwell at the BBC: Two Wasted Years?’.

[14]  Lowe, ‘Resistance and Rebuilding: The Wartime Writings of George Orwell and Albert Camus’, p. 311.

[15]  George Orwell, ‘London Letter’, 15th April 1941. Partisan Review, July-August 1941.

[16]  Lowe, ‘Resistance and Rebuilding: The Wartime Writings of George Orwell and Albert Camus’, p. 312.

[17]  Orwell, ‘London Letter’, 15th April 1941.

[18]  John Newsinger, Orwell’s Politics. 1999, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 100.

[19]  Paczulla, ‘”Talking to India”: George Orwell’s Work at the BBC, 1941-1943’, pp. 64-5.

[20]  Paczulla, ‘”Talking to India”: George Orwell’s Work at the BBC, 1941-1943’, p. 61.

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