George Orwell, Hitler and the British Empire

A conventional understanding of George Orwell’s political legacy more often than not begins with a studious appreciation of his classic novels, Animal Farm or 1984 rather than his first-hand detestation and rejection of the British Empire. His tenure serving in the Imperial Police Force in 1920s in a part of British occupied India, that was known as Burma, and now called Myanmar provided him with the unvarnished and ugly truth of Empire. The five years spent here imposing the Empire’s will on a subject people had made him realise the Empire was a grandiose self-deception rooted in brutal fraudulence. This realisation found literary expression in the first novel he wrote, Burmese Days. The main character, Mr. Flory, formulates the raison d’etre of the British Empire as such:

“…how can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal? It’s so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets.”

The above quote refers to Burma but could easily be applied anywhere else John Bull’s writ ran supreme. When stripped to the bones, theft of other people’s resources is what drove the British Empire. Flory then adds quite pointedly, rhetorically and even saliently, “Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British?” This question can easily be asked today of the British installed puppet regimes in the Arabian peninsula whether it is the Saudis, Qataris, UAE or the Sultanate of Oman: if it wasn’t for the fact the British Empire originally installed and maintained these ruling despotic dynasties does anyone think the billions of petro-dollars in contracts from these states to British coffers and businesses would have materialised? Would British Aerospace had become one of the most richest arms manufacturers if the Saudi clan rulers had not ploughed hundreds of billions of petro-dollars into the company over the last several decades and over and above the wishes of the ordinary inhabitants of that part of Arabian peninsula British Empire named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?[i]

The late author, Christopher Hitchens in his discussion of Orwell and Empire cites an essay written by Orwell six months into World War Two and several weeks before France had succumbed to Hitler’s Germany.[ii] In this essay Orwell takes the reader back twenty years to Colombo where he witnessed to what today would be referred to as racially aggravated violence by a police sergeant on a worker that was met with approval by some of the European passengers. Such humiliation Orwell remonstrates most likely continues in those parts of the world were British sovereignty dictates. Orwell then argues that such behaviour would now be rampant in Europe where Hitler’s Germany was in the midst of proving itself to be the supreme military power. Hitchens then quotes what he perceives to be the relevant passages from Orwell’s essay but then mysteriously proceeds to lament Stalin, Franco, the Moroccans and the rest during the Spanish Civil War. Yet in the same essay, Orwell is under no illusion to what Adolf Hitler’s Germany represents. Hitler, argues Orwell,

“is only the ghost of our own past rising against us. He stands for the extenuation and perpetuation of our own methods, just at the moment we are beginning to be ashamed of them.”[iii]

Why Hitchens overlooks this distinctive segment of the essay will always be open to conjecture but herein Orwell is clearly stating that Nazi Germany is British imperialism brought home to Europe. The barbarism behind the establishment of the British Empire over the previous centuries was now manifesting itself in Hitler’s Germany, that is, Hitler, “is only the ghost of our own past rising against us.” In today’s world this would most likely and popularly be referred to as some kind of karma.

It was not the first time Orwell had made a direct comparison between the evils of the British Empire and Nazi Germany. In July 1939, three months before war broke between Germany, Poland, Britain and France, Orwell wrote an intriguing book review. The book hypothesised that what today would be referred to as ‘western’ democracies should rise to meet the challenge and unite to deter to an expansionist Nazi Germany and the other dictatorships of the day namely Mussolini’s Italy and Japan. The problem with this, according to Orwell, is that the author has “lumped the huge British and French empires – in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting cheap labour – under the heading of democracies!”[iv] As such, his entire thesis is nothing but “humbug”. Orwell accuses the author of overlooking the millions of people in Africa and Asia who are oppressed by the British and French Empires, hence the title of the review, “Not Counting Ni**ers” and rhetorically asks “how can we “fight Fascism” except by bolstering up a vaster injustice?”[v] Orwell then substantiates his argument,

“For of course it is vaster. What we always forget is that the over­whelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa. It is not in Hitler’s power, for instance, to make a penny an hour a normal industrial wage; it is perfectly normal in India, and we are at great pains to keep it so. One gets some idea of the real relationship of England and India when one reflects that the per capita annual income in England is something over £80, and in India about £7. It is quite common for an Indian coolie’s leg to be thinner than the average Englishman’s arm. And there is nothing racial in this, for well-fed members of the same races are of normal physique; it is due to simple starvation. This is the system which we all live on…”[vi]

Unsurprisingly, whereas Orwell morally condemned the British Empire and wanted it dismantled, Hitler had nothing but admiration and wanted to imitate it. The Fuhrer had argued that, “The wealth of Great Britain is the result…of the capitalist exploitation of the three hundred and fifty million Indian slaves.” His naked intention was to make Russia the India of the Nazi Empire or as he exclaimed, what “India was for England…the territories of Russia will be for us.”[vii]

From opposite ends of a moral spectrum, both Hitler and Orwell were conscious that British wealth and prosperity was dependent on the occupation and enslavement of India and other territories the British imperial writ ran supreme. A recent study by the economist Dr. Utsa Patniak argues that over the course of almost 200 years the British Empire violently expunged $43 trillion dollars from India. The Indian politician and historian, Shashi Tharoor in his book, Inglorious Empire claims that tens of millions of Indians were killed in famines and impoverishment as a result of Britain’s looting of India.[viii]

The comparison between the British Empire and Nazi Germany was also made by the writer Sven Lindqvist in his treatise on European genocides, “Exterminate all the Brutes”. Herein he states that, “Hitler wished to create…a continental equivalent of the British Empire” in the east of Europe.[ix]Interestingly, Lindqvest also shows that from the nineteenth century genocide began to be seen as an “inevitable byproduct of progress” by Europeans as they expanded, occupied and colonised other parts of the world.[x] So when this “ghost of our own past” to use Orwell’s expression, emerged “in the heart of Europe, no one recognised it. No one wished to admit what everyone knew.”[xi]Orwell was a rare exception.

There is much self-legitimacy and comfort to solely associate Orwell with his later novels Animal Farm and especially 1984 but this does a massive disservice to the origins of Orwell’s political consciousness as an anti-imperialist and specifically his contempt for the British Empire. Obviously, the continuous need to focus simply on his final work of fiction, 1984, reflects the continuous need to legitimise the current liberal order in the face of whatever the latest threat maybe. Political and literary commentary on 1984 has become the secular equivalent of a street corner religious preacher declaring all is doom and gloom if we don’t heed the warnings of religious scripture; as eternal damnation in the lower depths of hell shall befall those who don’t follow a religious path, 1984 is appropriated to show that if the liberal order is not loyally defended then nothing but Newspeak, Room 101, Big Brother, Thought Police and all the rest shall befall humanity.

Therefore, a comprehensive appreciation of Orwell’s legacy needs to ask whether he would’ve embarked on a politically socialist path if he had not first and foremost rejected the British Empire? Orwell’s anti-imperialism is not only the beginning of his radical political consciousness; it remains a constant all through his writing. From Burmese Days to Wigan Pier where he refers to the British Empire as an “evil despotism” to his commentary on the Labour Party victory in the 1945 general election where he states that Britain, “lives partly by exploiting the coloured peoples.”[xii]Even in his much vaunted essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell speaks of England’s wealth as being “drawn largely from Africa and Asia.”     

For Orwell, there was nothing exceptionally evil about Nazi Germany because he knew Hitler’s intentions were to mirror the British Empire in Europe. The irony is that the abhorrent evil of Hitler and all that Hitler wanted to achieve is rightly morally condemned, but celebratory symbols of the British Empire in its blood-soaked heyday, Queen Victoria statues, remain firmly planted in over fifty British cities. More so, the bust of one of the greatest exponents of British imperialism, Winston Churchill, enjoys pride of place in the American White House.  

[i] Nu’man Abd al-Wahid, “How Zionism helped create the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, Mondoweiss, 7th January 2016. https://mondoweiss.net/2016/01/zionism-kingdom-arabia/  (accessed 21.05.2019)

[ii] Christopher Hitchens, Orwell’s Victory, (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pg.14

[iii] George Orwell ‘Notes on the Way’, Time and Tide, 30 March and 6 April 1940 in Peter Davison (ed.), The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol.12, (London: Secker & Warburg, 2000), pg.123

[iv] George Orwell, Not Counting Niggers, Adelphi, July 1939 in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters’ Volume 1, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), pg. 396.

[v] ibid., pg 397

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Quoted in Niall Ferguson, “Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World” (London: Penguin Books, 2004), pg.334

[viii] Shashi Tharoor, “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India” (London: Hurst & Company, 2017).

[ix] Sven Lindqvist, “Exterminate all the Brutes” (London: Granta Books, 1998), pg.10

[x] ibid. pg. 122-3

[xi] ibid., pg. 172

[xii] George Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), pg. 138 and George Orwell, ‘London Letter to Partisan Review’, August 1945 in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters’ Volume 3, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), pg. 396.

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