“Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom” by Thomas E. Ricks is a joint biography of two men who “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” in the mid-20th century.
As dual biographies pour off the presses, authors stretch to find a suitable pair. That includes Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ricks (“The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today”), who takes an odd tack with subjects who were neither friends, colleagues, rivals, nor enemies. Nonetheless, given the author’s abundant skills, readers will thoroughly enjoy the result.
Since Churchill and Orwell never met, Ricks writes separate biographies and then works hard to deliver a common theme. He succeeds because these two men made cases for individual freedom better than anyone in their century. During 1940, at a time when everyone agreed that Britain’s destruction was imminent, Churchill treated Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers (who were largely responsible) with respect, ordered no mass murders or arrests, and never assumed that, in this crisis and, of course, temporarily, Britain needed a touch of Nazi ruthlessness.
Orwell has always been the conservatives’ favorite Marxist, although he was a faithful socialist all his life. An obscure journalist until his breakthrough with “Animal Farm” (1945) and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949), he hated totalitarianism in all forms but reserved special ire for the cant and fabrication that all governments employ and that his colleagues on the left accepted when it suited their beliefs. Everyone approves of Orwell’s classic statement that a lie in the service of a good cause is no less despicable than in the service of a bad cause. Yet it’s never caught on; our leaders routinely announce bad news as good news, and plenty of activists consider lying a useful tactic.
A superb account of two men who set standards for defending liberal democracy that remain disturbingly out of reach.
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