Sunday, September 30, 2007

What Orwell might have said

The other night I began thumbing through a volume of George Orwell's Second World War journalism--the second volume of the 1968 edition of his collected works--and came across something I had completely forgotten about, a letter he wrote to the Times of London on October 12, 1942. Orwell was my first serious academic interest--I wrote my senior thesis on the development of his thought during the 1930s in 1968-9, although I have never figured out a way to get it into print. This is hardly the first time, nor will it be the last, that I have occasion to quote him here.

Let us remember, for a moment, what the situation was in 1942. Europe was, of course, threatened by totalitarian rule, both Fascist and Communist. Orwell had viewed both first hand in Spain in 1937 and had written very critically of both. He had also despaired of western civilization briefly in the late 1930s, but when war broke out in 1939, he realized that English civilization was worth fighting for, and that even if liberty and popular rights were only half-truths in Britain, that was far, far better than what they would be under German rule. He never changed that view. By the time he wrote this letter Britain had survived the threat of invasion, the 1940 blitz had killed tens of thousands of his fellow citizens, the Germans were still apparently winning the war in the Soviet Union (although the Stalingrad debacle was not far off), and, although he may not fully have realized it, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question was in full swing.

Now what moved Orwell to write this letter was a propaganda war between the British and Germans over the treatment of prisoners of war. In their one-day raid on Dieppe the British had captured some Germans, and the Germans claimed the British had put them in irons. (They may well have handcuffed them to prevent them from escaping.) The Germans announced that a certain number of British POW's would be put in chains, in clear violation of the Geneva Convention (which German POW camps generally observed with respect to western European prisoners, though not towards Soviets). In retaliation the British government had announced that it would chain some German prisoners. Orwell wrote because this decision, he felt, had generated "extraordinarily little protest." He continued:

"By chaining up German prisoners in response to similar action by the Germans, we descend, at any rate in the eyes of hte ordinary observer, to the level of our enemies. It is unquestionable when one things of the history of hte past ten years that there is a deep moral difference between democracy and Fascism, but if we go on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth we simply cause that difference to be forgotten. Moreover, if the matter of ruthlessness we are unlikely to compete successfully with our enemies. . .
"It seems to me that the civilized answer to the German action would be something like this: 'You proclaim that you are putting thousands of British prisoners in chains because some half-dozen Germans or thereabouts wer etemporarily tied up during the Dieppe raid. This is hypocrisy. . . .At this moment we cannot stop you maltreating our prisoners, though we shall probably remember it at the peace settlement, but don't fear that we shall retaliate in kind. You are Nazis, we are civilized men. This latest act of yours simply demonstrates the difference.['"

As I have tried to suggest here in some posts in the past, one of the things that disturbs me the most about our handling of Islamic terrorism is our extraordinary lack of perspective. There is simply no rational way that the threat we face today can be equated even to the threat of Communism, much less that of National Socialism and its Japanese and Italian allies. And Britain in 1942 was far more threatened than we can ever be. Yet this most remarkable of Englishmen did not allow his bearings to be unhinged. He believed his country worth fighting for precisely because it stood for certain basic standards of decency, which he wanted to respect at all costs.

The letter in retrospect is a credit to Orwell, and I don't think I will have to tell anyone why I chose to quote from it today. But it isn't that great a credit to Britain. The Times did not publish it.

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