How George Orwell justified killing German civilians in the second world war



Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell) in characteristic pose.

Tim Luckhurst, Durham University

During the second world war, Britain’s national daily newspapers usually supported the government’s portrayal of the national war effort as flawlessly heroic. This was a just war – and supported as such even by many Britons who, until 1940, had supported pacifist organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union.

But Tribune, the weekly newspaper founded by wealthy Labour MPs Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss and edited by Aneurin Bevan, was bolder. Promoting itself as “Fresh and Fearless” Tribune relished controversy. In September 1943, it celebrated the recruitment of an expert controversialist as its literary editor: George Orwell.

Orwell soon seized upon a topic the wartime coalition had worked assiduously to conceal: the deliberate killing of German civilians in colossal RAF raids on German cities. His pretext was the publication by Vera Brittain, the feminist and pre-war pacifist, of Seed of Chaos, her pungent denunciation of obliteration bombing. Supporting her case with eyewitness accounts by neutral Swiss and Swedish newspaper correspondents, Brittain recounted tales of corpses “all over streets and even in the tree-tops” and women “demented after the raids, crying continuously for their lost children”.

Influential voice for Pacifism: Vera Brittain.

Detecting sanctimony, Orwell attacked head on with a piece entitled “As I Please”. There was, he wrote, “something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features”.

Talk of “limiting or humanising” total war was “sheer humbug”, Orwell insisted. Warming to his theme, he condemned Brittain’s “parrot cry” against “killing women and children” and insisted: “It is probably better to kill a cross section of the population than to kill only the young men.” If allied raids had killed 1.2 million German civilians, “that loss of life has probably harmed the German race somewhat less than a corresponding loss on the Russian front”.

Tribune’s readers were not unanimous in their support for Orwell. A flow of critical letters arrived but the literary editor did not budge. He “did not feel that mere killing is all important”. There was, he suggested, a moral case for killing German civilians. It brought home the nature of modern war and might make such conflict less likely.

Hard truths

Orwell’s stance was in stark opposition to government policy. This was to pretend that civilian deaths were rare collateral damage in raids meticulously targeted at German industrial and military infrastructure. In fact, Orwell’s defence challenged the Air Ministry as directly as Brittain’s moral outrage. Orwell recognised that area bombing was intended to cause mass civilian casualties and routinely did so.

Military historian and author Martin Middlebrook describes the British government’s statements about area bombing between 1942 and 1945 as “a three-year period of deceit on the British public and world opinion”. The areas attacked were “nearly always city centres or densely populated residential areas”. Britain had invested vast resources to build a fleet of heavy, four-engine bombers among which the Avro Lancaster was king. Mass raids against cities including Cologne, Essen and Hamburg soon demonstrated that the Lancaster’s brave, vulnerable crews could not hit targets with any precision.

Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris pleaded with the prime minister to admit that raids involved the deliberate murder of civilians. In October 1943, he wrote to Churchill’s friend, the air minister Archibald Sinclair, demanding bombing tactics be “unambiguously and publicly stated”, writing:

That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany.

Harris wanted ministers to tell the public that the deaths of women and children were not a “byproduct of attempts to hit factories”. Such slaughter was one of the “accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy”.

Even when the Associated Press described Allied raids on Dresden as deliberate “terror bombing”, the government continued to deploy bland euphemisms. By recognising that RAF Bomber Command killed civilians as a conscious act of policy, Orwell and Tribune were playing with fire. They were not censored or condemned because it suited ministers to tolerate dissent in small circulation weekly titles. Such robust debate burnished Britain’s democratic credentials and reassured her American allies.

The last word

Brittain was not reassured. Writer Richard Westwood has shown that she resented Orwell’s attacks so intensely that she would revisit their dispute years after his death in order to “win her argument with Orwell in retrospect and when he could not respond”. This she attempted in Testament of Experience by quoting selectively from a report Orwell sent from Germany for The Observer in April 1945.

Brittain suggests he retracted his support for obliteration bombing. In fact, Orwell described damage done by allied bombs and argued that the Allies should not impose harsh reparations. A punitive approach would leave Germans dependent on international aid. He did not apologise for the RAF’s work. Instead, he repeated his defence that “a bomb kills a cross-section of the population whereas the men killed in battle are exactly the ones the community can least afford to lose”.

Orwell’s candour about area bombing was a robust example of dissenting wartime journalism. It demonstrated Tribune’s editorial courage and that the wartime coalition understood it could not reconcile defence of democracy with suppression of free speech.

Brittain was wrong to misrepresent him. His work illustrates how intelligent publications with thoughtful readers upheld Britain’s democratic tradition in wartime. Such journalism was not restricted to the left. The Spectator and The Economist played comparable roles on this and other subjects.


Tim Luckhurst will deliver his online lecture to the Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures via Zoom between 4pm and 5 pm on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. To attend please register here.The Conversation

Tim Luckhurst, Principal of South College, Durham University. He is a newspaper historian and an academic member of the University’s Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures., Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book clubs and the Blitz: how WWII Britons kept calm and got reading



Pilots and air crew passing the time with books and newspapers.
S.A. Devon, RAF official photographer/Imperial War Museum

Nicola Wilson, University of Reading

These are unprecedented times – but, even so, comparisons are being made to the second world war in terms of the magnitude of the crisis that coronavirus represents. Some of this rhetoric is unhelpful but, as we bunker down into our homes and the government gets on a war footing, there is little doubt that the challenge to our liberty, leisure time and sense of wellbeing is real.

With early reports that book sales are soaring while bookshops and warehouses close down and publishers reassess their lists, what can the reading patterns of an earlier generation tell us about getting through a crisis and staying at home?

The restrictions at the beginning of the second world war affected all aspects of day-to-day life. But it was the blackout that topped most people’s list of grievances – above shortages of food and fuel, the evacuation, and lack of news and public services. Households were reprimanded and fined for showing chinks of light through windows, car lights were dimmed, and walking around, even along familiar streets, late at night became treacherous.

With the widespread limitations to free movement, the book trade was quick off the mark. Books were promoted by libraries and book clubs as the very thing to fight boredom and fill blacked-out evenings at home or in shelters with pleasure and forgetfulness. “Books may become more necessary than gas-masks,” the Book Society, Britain’s first celebrity book club, advised.

Selling tales

I’ve been researching the choices and recommendations of the Book Society for the past few years. The club was set up in 1929 and ran until the 1960s, shipping “carefully” selected books out to thousands of readers each month. It was modelled on the success of the American Book-of-the-Month club (which launched in 1926) and aimed to boost book sales at a time when buying books wasn’t common. It irritated some critics and booksellers who accused it of “dumbing down” and giving an unfair advantage to some books over others – but was hugely popular with readers.

Boots Book-lovers’ Library flyer, c. 1939.
Boots Company archives, Nottingham

The Book Society was run by a selection committee of literary celebrities – the likes of JB Priestley, Sylvia Lynd, George Gordon, Edmund Blunden and Cecil Day-Lewis – chaired by bestselling novelist Hugh Walpole. Selections were not meant to be the “best” of anything, but had to be worthwhile and deserving of people’s time and hard-earned cash.

Guaranteeing tens of thousands of extra sales, the club had a huge impact on the mid-20th-century book trade, with publishers desperate to get the increased sales and global reach of what publisher Harold Raymond called “the Book Society bun”.

Books will go on

The Book Society guided readers through the confusion of appeasement and the run-up to the second world war with a marked increase in recommendations of political non-fiction examining contemporary geo-politics. The classic novel of appeasement was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (Book Society Choice in October 1938) in which a sense of malaise and inevitability of future war haunts the characters’ desperate actions.

When Britain finally declared war against Germany in September 1939, the Book Society judges were divided. Some were relieved that, as George Gordon put it, “an intolerable situation has at last acquired the awful explicitness of war”. But others were devastated, especially Edmund Blunden who was still traumatised from fighting in the first world war.

Book Society flyer, c. 1939.
John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The judges advised members that when they became weary of news, people “will turn to books as the best comfort”, as had happened in the first world war with the increase in reading and library membership. Publishers and booksellers faced huge challenges during the second world war, including paper shortages, problems in distribution, a vanishing workforce, and bomb damage to offices and warehouses. But there were more readers – and from a wider social class – at the end of it. Demand consistently outstripped supply as consumer expenditure on books more than doubled between 1938 and 1945.

What people were reading

Throughout the second world war, the Book Society varied its lists between books that offered some insight on the strangeness of contemporary life and works of fiction – especially historical fiction – that took readers’ minds off it.

Titles in the first group include comic novels by the likes of E M Delafield and Evelyn Waugh, as well as forgotten bestsellers like Ethel Vance’s Escape (1939) (an unlikely thriller set in a concentration camp) and Reaching for the Stars (1939), American journalist Nora Waln’s inside account of life in Nazi Germany.

Settling down with something to read underneath the arches during an air raid.
Imperial War Museum, CC BY

More topical non-fiction became a priority as the devastation of the Blitz kicked in. Winged Words: Our Airmen Speak for Themselves (1941) and Into Battle: Winston Churchill’s War Speeches (1941) were especially popular.

Historical fiction was consistently in demand. Half the club’s choices in 1941 were long novels with historical settings. As today’s readers prepare to batten down the hatches with Hilary Mantel’s 900-page latest book, it is sobering to reflect on how an imaginative connection with the past has long helped readers find relief from the madness of the present.




Read more:
The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel gets as close to the real Thomas Cromwell as any historian


The other fail-safes in the second world war were the classics. As books already in print became scarce, the Book Society reissued new editions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. These were books that Walpole said he believed he could sit down with even through an air raid.

Indeed, Neilsen BookScan has reported a rise in sales of classic fiction as the coronavirus crisis deepens – including War and Peace – as readers use this unfamiliar time to knuckle down to the heavyweights.

You can also join a War and Peace reading group online if you want a bit of company. After the homeschooling, working from home, and everything else. Here goes.The Conversation

Nicola Wilson, Associate Professor in Book and Publishing Studies, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stolen By the Nazis


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the stolen books of Europe – stolen by Nazi Germany and sitting in libraries.

For more visit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/arts/nazi-loot-on-library-shelves.html

Not My Review: Deserter – The Untold Story of WWII by Charles Glass


The link below is to a book review of the book by Charles Glass, ‘Deserter – The Untold Story of WWII.’

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/28/deserter-untold-story-glass-review

Article: WWII – The Story of Billy Young


History for Today

The link below is to an article that tells the story of World War II survivor Billy Young. Young was a 16-year-old who survived the Japanese torture of imprisonment during World War II. This piece is an edited selection from the book ‘The Story of Billy Young,’ by Anthony Hill.

For more visit:
http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/brutality-and-survival-the-horrific-tale-of-the-kid-who-refused-to-die-20120728-232ps.html

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Post War – A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt


I have now started to read ‘Post War,’ by Tony Judt. The edition I have was published in 2005 by The Penguin Press. It is a massive work of over 900 pages, that includes both photographs and maps.

The period of history being dealt with is post war Europe from the end of World War II to 2005. It includes the immediate aftermath of World War II, right through the Cold War period and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Though I have only just started (yesterday) I have completed about 100 pages thus far, which has taken me through the preface, introduction and the first chapter, ‘The Legacy of War.’ The first chapter deals with the immediate aftermath of the war and its consequences for the people of Europe. It is an horrific picture of post war Europe and the devastation it had on the entirety of Europe – nations, cities and towns, peoples and families. It is the legacy of total war.