Orwell on Hitler

I just finished reading Orwell’s review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, found in the definitive three-volume collection of his letters, essays and articles (edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus). It is interesting for being very un-propagandistic, written (in 1940) as Britain was facing the full onslaught of the German Blitzkrieg.

Orwell makes the candid statement that Hitler had his attractive qualities. Otherwise, had the Nazi dictator been no more than an insane clown he would never have come to power. Yet this nutty stereotype lingered for decades after Orwell’s commentary. Only in recent films like The Downfall (2004) and Valkyrie (2008) have more sober portrayals emerged. They seem to vindicate Orwell’s assessment that

Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches.

Orwell adds that while he was quite willing to kill the Nazi leader in the interests of humanity: “I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler…. I could feel no personal animosity.” This blunt honesty surfaces again and again in Orwell, despite his lapses into shallow thinking in other areas.  Related to this, the English writer makes a couple of interesting points.

First, Orwell criticized the progressives of his generation for assuming that “human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain…. short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control….” Hitler seduced an entire people by offering them “struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades.” It’s not that all these things appealed to Orwell. He was no admirer of jackboots and barracks life (a trait some leftists share with fascists). But he was a patriot and had served in combat on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.

Second, Orwell scoffed at facile accusations that Hitler was a creature of “the capitalists” and “conservatives.” As he states in another essay from the same period, Hitler was essentially a Bolshevik, albeit of the nationalist rather than the internationalist variety. Whether people loved or hated Hitler, they were wrong to think that he was saving Germany from Communism. Nazism was in fact doing just the opposite.

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