George Orwell and the death of truth

Reading differing versions of the Ukraine conflict reminds me of George Orwell’s recollections of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.  Orwell fought on the government side against rebels led by General Franco and was wounded in action.  Soviet Russia supported the government side; Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the rebels.

Here’s what Orwell had to say:

George Orwell

George Orwell

I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish civil war. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists.

But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.

Recently I drew up a table of atrocities during the period between 1918 and the present; there was never a year when atrocities were not occurring somewhere or other, and there was hardly a single case when the Left and the Right believed in the same stories simultaneously.

And stranger yet, at any moment the situation can suddenly reverse itself and yesterday’s proved-to-the-hilt atrocity story can become a ridiculous lie, merely because the political landscape has changed. [snip]

govtposterspainI remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding.  We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war.

Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.  I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened.

I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’. [snip]

fascistposterspainOut of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point — the presence in Spain of a Russian army.  Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain.  There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not.  Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this.  Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain.

Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their ‘legionaries’.

I have chosen to mention only one point, but in fact the whole of Fascist propaganda about the war was on this level.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.  After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written?   If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books, and (to stick to my chosen point) that Russian army which never existed will become historical fact, and schoolchildren will learn about it generations hence.

But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written?  What kind of records will Franco have left behind him?  Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written?  For, as I have pointed out already, the Government also dealt extensively in lies. [snip]

Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted.  So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. [snip]

This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.

Click on George Orwell: Looking back on the Spanish War for the full article, published in 1943, which also describes his experiences in the war and his thoughts on the nature of fascism.   Orwell did NOT think the answer to lying propaganda was to assume that “the truth lies somewhere in between.”

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One Response to “George Orwell and the death of truth”

  1. KatherineJ Says:

    Thank you,that is very well worth reading

    Like

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