Reviewing Hitler and Gandhi
Housekeeping: And now for something a little different. This week we’re keeping it light…ish. Several longer form editions and interview pieces are in the works for the coming weeks. The news roundups will continue as well. In the meantime, enjoy this historical tidbit.
In this edition: Looking at two classic George Orwell essays: a review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and a meditative essay on Gandhi’s legacy.
Few writers can claim to have peered into personalities as richly disparate as Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi in real time. Fewer writers still could claim to have come out critically on both, renouncing clearly the unrelenting hatred in Hitler but able to understand and explain his appeal, and expressing lucidly the need for caution not to canonize Gandhi.
Eric Blair, known more widely under his pseudonym George Orwell, would become famous for writing Animal Farm and 1984, which along with one or two of his essays are still assigned to students in the U.S. And he can claim this strange privilege.
Take, first, his review of Hitler’s book. Orwell begins by pointing out the speed with which Britain sought to erase the record of its treatment of Hitler in the Hurst and Blackett 1939 edition of Mein Kampf, which was “edited from a pro-Hitler angle.” The prewar Britain had seen much to love, Orwell avers: the domination of labor movements ranking high on that list; in Orwell’s words, “Both Left and Right concurred in the very shallow notion that National Socialism was merely a version of Conservatism.” The antisemitism, the imperialism, the nationalism weren’t so foreign to British conservatism, either. The account of Hitler’s appeal during this time offered in the review is so daring that most online accounts still censor some lines from the essay.
And then the war. British opinion turned. Hitler wasn’t kosher, after all. But the problem with the turn, Orwell observes, is that it misunderstands the problem with Hitler. The problem with the “führer” was that his worldview didn’t develop, it didn’t turn. It was stunningly rigid. This was the insight that allowed Orwell to predict the 1941 invasion of Russia, something which Stalin failed to do.
This painfully lucid writing offered insights on less flamboyantly evil figures than little Adolf, too.
In Orwell’s account, the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi is not all roses, either. “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” he sardonically says in “Reflections on Gandhi” in a 1949 edition of Partisan Review.
Gandhi had other, more aggressive critics, who were not numbered among the British conservatives or Indian business classes. This is something that tends to get lost on the western audiences who have reified the man, but it is a debate worth delving into (For instance: B.R. Ambedkar, who was born a Hindu in the “untouchable” caste. See his massively interesting and important work in the history of Indian politics: Annihilation of Caste).
From within the western perspective, however, Orwell’s critique is more of a reflective skepticism, uncomfortable with moral exemplars or saintly figures. The resultant essay shines with a nuanced account of the man, as well as an intricate account of the incompatibility of sainthood and humanism. It also charts some of the limits to Gandhi’s form of pacifistic resistance which can be at times heartless, such as when Gandhi said the German Jews ought to have committed collective suicide to “arouse the world” against German violence. It also seems unlikely to translate to authoritarian regimes, Orwell remarks.
Orwell concludes with a refreshing nuance:
One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!
Every generation, it seems, can find its own uses for Orwell. Ours, in the age of post-fact, is Orwell the anti-totalitarian and the anti-propagandist. In perhaps his most enduring essays, including “Shooting an Elephant”, Blair expresses sentiments which map very nicely on sentiments about the moral deficiency of empire. This version of Orwell— as brutal and unblinking to himself as much as anyone else— remains as relevant as ever. Indeed, his commentaries on truth furnished enough material for a 2019 book with an introduction by Adam Hochschild, award-winning author of King Leopold’s Ghost.
Orwell can sometimes read cold for young readers. Something in his personality fails to connect with a modern American reader. However, his journalism is anything but cold, detached. It is daring and bold and unflinching. It is committed to the moral stance. It is, if anything is, objective in the true sense of the word.
It is this objectivity that we should seek to emulate.