Rewriting the past: the history that inspired Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

From Stalinist Russia to the Spanish Civil War, the 20th century offered George Orwell a huge array of material for his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dorian Lynskey charts the events that inspired a masterpiece

In writing his classical novel, Orwell drew on the very real horrors of the 20th century. (Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC World Histories Magazine)

On 21 August 1936, a minor Bolshevik official named ES Holtzman told a Russian court that he had been involved in a Trotskyist plot against Stalin. Holtzman was a defendant in the first major show trial of the period known as the Great Purge, during which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were consigned to prisons, labour camps and execution chambers. Holtzman testified that in 1932 he had travelled to Copenhagen to rendezvous with Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov, at the Hotel Bristol. His evidence helped to convict himself and the other alleged plotters, all of whom were promptly shot.

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A few days after the trial, however, a Danish newspaper pointed out the significant fact that the Hotel Bristol had been demolished in 1917. Evidence later emerged that Lev Sedov had been in Berlin on the day he was meant to have been in Copenhagen. Holtzmann’s ‘confession’ could not have been true.

In writing his classical novel, Orwell drew on the very real horrors of the 20th century

The point of the trial was to prove the existence of an international Trotskyist conspiracy as a pretext for purging the Communist Party of anybody who might possibly challenge Stalin’s rule. The problem for Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, was that not a shred of incriminating correspondence existed, so all the ‘evidence’ had to come in the form of forced and scripted confessions of face-to-face meetings. The Hotel Bristol error laid bare the fraudulence of these damning testimonies. “What the devil did you need a hotel for?” an embarrassed Stalin berated the NKVD officers who had fabricated the confession. “You ought to have said that they met at the railway station. The railway station is always there!” When the official book of the trial was translated into English, the passage about the hotel was deleted.

George Orwell: in profile

Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihari, north-east India on 25 June 1903, and grew up in England. After graduating from Eton College, he spent five years in the Imperial Police in Burma (now Myanmar), which left him with a keen sense of political outrage and personal guilt. He drifted between journalism, tramping and menial jobs, which informed his first book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), published under the pseudonym George Orwell. During the 1930s, he published four novels and two more works of nonfiction. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) examined working-class life in the north of England, while Homage to Catalonia (1938) described his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

Classified unfit for military service in the Second World War, Orwell worked for the BBC’s Indian Section for two years. Upon leaving the BBC in 1943, he joined the left-wing magazine Tribune, wrote Animal Farm (1945) and adopted a son, Richard Blair. In 1945, while Orwell was working as a war reporter in Europe, his wife Eileen died suddenly. The following year, Orwell moved to Jura in the Inner Hebrides, and began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Delayed because of Orwell’s journalism commitments and hospitalisation for tuberculosis, the book was published on 8 June 1949. This dystopian novel is set in a year (which may or may not be 1984) in what was then the future in Airstrip One (Britain), now part of Oceania, one of three warring superstates. The totalitarian ruling Party – whose leader, Big Brother, is the centre of a powerful personality cult, even though he may not exist – exerts total control over both actions and thoughts, constantly monitoring Oceania’s people and rewriting history to match present political requirements.

Orwell married Sonia Brownell in October 1949 in hospital in London, where he died on 21 January 1950.

One of the people who read about the Hotel Bristol fiasco was George Orwell, who was closely following Russia’s descent into full-blown tyranny via the eyewitness accounts of disillusioned communists including Boris Souvarine and André Gide. Through their pamphlets, Orwell learned about many of the features of Stalinism that would feed into his great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): the cult of personality; the rewriting of history; the assault on freedom of speech and thought; the denunciations and forced confessions; and the paralysing climate of suspicion and fear.

In the novel, Winston Smith is a junior official in the Ministry of Truth, the Ingsoc regime’s propaganda ministry, where he rewrites old newspaper reports to reconcile them with the latest party line. One day, Winston comes across a stray photograph that proves the notorious traitors Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford were in New York on the same day that they had confessed to meeting the Trotsky-like Emmanuel Goldstein in Eurasia. This may have been Orwell’s tribute to the case of ES Holtzman.

Orwell called Nineteen Eighty-Four “a novel about the future” but it was also a deeply researched story about the recent past. While she was writing The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood set herself a rule: “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” Similarly, Orwell drew many of the most disturbing elements of his fictional dictatorship of Oceania from totalitarian reality. Many readers in 1949 would have recognised that most of the events and practices in the novel echoed what had already unfolded in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Winston Smith, the enigmatic dictator Big Brother and the fanatical interrogator O’Brien never existed, but people very similar to them did. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell insisted, was not a prophecy but a satirical exaggeration of recent history.

Orwell had endured a brief taste of the “nightmare atmosphere” of a police state in 1937, when he was fighting for the Republic against General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The British author fought with the POUM, a small and vulnerable Marxist movement regarded with suspicion by the Soviet-backed Republican forces. When Barcelona fell into the hands of Stalinists, the POUM was accused of conspiring with both Trotsky and Franco. Orwell was forced to flee for his life; many of his comrades were not so fortunate. “However little you were actually conspiring, the atmosphere forced you to feel like a conspirator,” he wrote in his war memoir Homage to Catalonia (1938).

The paranoia, deceit and betrayal that Orwell encountered in the Spanish Civil War left him with a desire to learn about totalitarian methods

This was Orwell’s only first-hand experience of tyranny but he merged these vivid memories with information culled from myriad conversations, books, pamphlets and articles. If a first-person account of life in the Soviet Union or Germany was published in English or French between 1936 and 1948, then there is a strong chance that Orwell read it. Details of totalitarianism that are now commonplace in history books were leaking out sporadically, and Orwell was busy collecting them, years before he had the idea for a novel about such a regime. The paranoia, deceit and betrayal that he had encountered in Spain had left him with an urgent desire to learn as much as he possibly could about totalitarian methods.

One of these illuminating books was Assignment in Utopia (1937) by the American journalist Eugene Lyons, a former communist and Moscow correspondent who had become disgusted by Stalinism. Lyons was fascinated by a numerical slogan designed under Stalin to inspire workers to complete the Five-Year Plan, a list of economic goals, in just four years: “The formula 2+2=5 instantly riveted my attention. It seemed to me at once bold and preposterous — the daring and the paradox and the tragic absurdity of the Soviet scene, its mystical simplicity, its defiance of logic, all reduced to nose-thumbing arithmetic.” Orwell used the unreal equation in a book review a few months later and eventually made it a symbolic battlefield in the psychological war between Winston and O’Brien. In the novel, 2+2=5 is obscenely false, like saying black is white or up is down – but in Stalin’s Russia it decorated billboards.

Yakov Guminer's propaganda poster of 1931 proclaiming '2+2=5', which inspired workers
Yakov Guminer’s propaganda poster of 1931 proclaims that ‘2+2=5’, inspiring workers to complete the Five Year Plan a year early. Orwell used this idea in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Soviet experience furnished Nineteen Eighty-Four with many of its most striking features. The Stalinist habit of removing the names of purged communists from history books and airbrushing their faces from photographs inspired Oceania’s category of ‘unperson’. In creating Big Brother, all-seeing yet unseen, Orwell drew on accounts of Stalin’s mystique, such as this passage from André Gide: “His portrait is seen everywhere, his name is on everyone’s lips, and praise of him occurs in every public speech. Is all this the result of worship, love or fear? Who can say?”


Listen: Joshua Rubenstein discusses the dramatic events surrounding the death of Josef Stalin on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Orwell’s arch-heretic Goldstein is clearly based on Trotsky (whose real name was Lev Bronstein) but also resembles Andrés Nin, the POUM leader who was tortured and executed by the NKVD while the author was in Barcelona. The young Spies who denounce their parents to the Thought Police are modelled on the cult of Pavlik Morozov, the 13-year-old Soviet ‘boy hero’ who was allegedly murdered in 1932 for betraying his father to the secret police. (Historians now believe that the murder was itself a legend created by Soviet propagandists.) Less well-informed readers may not have realised that many of Orwell’s futuristic atrocities had already happened, but observers of totalitarianism realised exactly what he was doing.

The Stalinist habit of removing the names of purged communists from history books inspired Orwell’s idea of the ‘unperson’

Orwell’s greatest achievement in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four was, therefore, not invention but synthesis. He hit upon some of the novel’s key ideas at least as early as 1937, and outlined it in his notebook (under the working title The Last Man in Europe) in late 1943, though he didn’t type the final words until December 1948. The book was thus the culmination of over a decade of reading, writing and thinking, which enabled him to gradually fuse multiple sources into a single scene or concept.

Take the Ministry of Love, the windowless torture complex in which O’Brien physically and psychologically dismantles Winston. Orwell only ever spent one night in a cell, after he contrived to have himself arrested for drunkenness in London in 1931 in order to experience incarceration for himself, but even that minor incident yielded an image used in Nineteen Eighty-Four – a prisoner squatting over a broken toilet.

For more information he turned to accounts such as The Woman Who Could Not Die (1938), Iulia de Beausobre’s memoir of two years in the Soviet prison system, and Darkness at Noon (1940), the first novel about the Great Purge, whose author Arthur Koestler had been incarcerated by Franco’s forces in Spain. Orwell’s scenes in the Ministry of Love are full of observations borrowed from Koestler’s novel. Koestler himself integrated the memories of his friend Eva Striker, who had been imprisoned in Moscow on phony charges of plotting against Stalin. Winston’s ordeal is thus a hybrid of the experiences of Orwell, Koestler, Striker and de Beausobre, and probably others, too. When citizens in the Soviet bloc read samizdat copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, they could not understand how a British author who had never set foot there could so accurately describe the society in which they lived. This is how: the careful amalgamation of years of research.

Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (born Lev Bronstein) addresses the Red Guard in 1918 during the Russian Civil War
Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (born Lev Bronstein) addresses the Red Guard in 1918 during the Russian Civil War. After opposing Stalin in the 1920s, he was exiled and erased from the official Soviet records, becoming an ‘unperson’. (George Rinhart/Getty Images)

The irony of writing about the deployment of historical facts in Nineteen Eighty-Four is that the book describes a world in which historical facts have ceased to exist and the past is infinitely malleable. The Party’s need to appear utterly consistent and infallible requires ceaseless lying on an industrial scale, to the point where citizens can no longer trust their own memories because they cannot be independently verified. To quote one of the book’s most famous lines: “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” The result is a society in which nothing is definitively true – not even the date. As Winston acknowledges when he starts writing his clandestine diary, Nineteen Eighty-Four may not even take place in 1984.

Orwell believed that the status of history itself had been radically challenged by totalitarianism. In his essay Looking Back on the Spanish War, written in 1942, he recalled telling Arthur Koestler that: “History stopped in 1936.” By this he meant that the Spanish Civil War, as the first conflict of the totalitarian era, was the first time that rival propaganda machines made an accurate account of events impossible. “I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway,” he wrote. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.”

Traditionally, historians disagreed about many things, but there were at least some basic, uncontroversial facts on which they could concur. Totalitarianism, however, sought to obliterate that neutral territory and make absolutely everything arguable. “The implied objective of this line of thought,” Orwell wrote, “is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five.”

By anticipating some of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s crucial phrases and concepts, Looking Back on the Spanish War makes it clear that the moral impetus for the novel came from the sensation, first experienced in Spain, that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world”. The 1930s saw a cultural obsession with data boom alongside the ability to convincingly doctor documents, statistics and photographs. In The Thirties (1940), a brisk and scathing history of the decade, which was approvingly reviewed by Orwell, the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “Never before, it may be assumed, have statistics been so greatly in demand, never before so extravagantly falsified.”

One of Winston’s tasks in the Ministry of Truth is to erase all trace of the Inner Party member Comrade Withers, now an unperson, and replace him in the text of one of Big Brother’s speeches with the entirely fabricated war hero Comrade Ogilvy: “Comrade Ogilvy, who had never existed in the present, now existed in the past, and when once the act of forgery was forgotten, he would exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar.” Even lowly Winston, in his own small way, has been granted the power to control the past and, therefore, the future.

During the 1940s, Orwell believed that the world was drowning in lies

During the 1940s, Orwell believed that the world was drowning in lies. One way in which he kept his head above water was to write a novel that dramatised the ultimate consequences of totalitarianism’s war on objective truth. Another was to hold himself to the highest standards. If he realised that he had made a factual error in print, then he was quick to admit it. One small incident epitomises Orwell’s extraordinary dedication to getting the facts straight, even when he had no incentive to do so.

In March 1945, Animal Farm was finished and edited, and Orwell was in Paris, working as a war correspondent. While he was there, he met Jósef Czapski, a survivor of the Soviet massacre of tens of thousands of Polish soldiers in the Katyn forest in 1940. Czapski told him that Stalin’s courage and leadership had been fundamental to repelling the German invasion of Russia; indeed, the Soviet leader had remained in Moscow even when he was being urged to flee for his own safety. In Animal Farm, however, Orwell had made the pig Napoleon, who represented Stalin, abandon his post during the Battle of the Windmill. He promptly wrote to his publisher, asking for that sentence to be amended: “I just thought the alteration would be fair to JS.”

Neither Orwell nor Czapski had any reason to be fair to Stalin. Still, a fact was a fact, and even a fictional porcine version of Stalin deserved an accurate account. As a novelist, writing about talking animals or a tyranny of the future, Orwell displayed a scrupulous journalist’s commitment to telling the truth. Abandon that, he thought, and there’s no end to what you could lose.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist and author. His latest book is The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (Picador, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 18 of BBC World Histories magazine