I was reading a collection of George Orwell essays the other day and I had a realisation. I hope this doesn’t make me come off as too much of a dolt but something he wrote suddenly made me think of something in a way I had never thought of it before. The essay was The Lion and the Unicorn. Written during World Way II, it covers the English character and political systems and is a pretty interesting addendum to Animal Farm and 1984.
The thing that struck me was throughout he makes little comments like ‘if we lose this war’, and I realised that I have never really thought of World War II as something that could possibly have been lost. A combination of the fact that it was won decades before I was born, along with all the war movies that reinforce the allied victory means that I had never really thought about how it must have been to live through that kind of uncertainty.
Of course, I had thought about how difficult it would have been to live through those years. It’s hard not to. When I think of it I think of a bombed London, children being evacuated to the country, rationing, the beach landings. But always these seemed to me like hardships that only had to be endured until the war was over, not as something that could continue indefinitely, or even get worse. I don’t want to make it seem lighter than it was. It must have been horrible, and now that I consider the uncertainty people must have had regarding its outcome, it only seems more horrible.
The fact that the good guys win seems so inexorable. This is story logic; you suffer, then you triumph. Reality isn’t dictated in this way but a lifetime of retrospective inevitability makes it seem like it is. Even the books by concentration camp survivors like Victor Frankl and Primo Levi never led me to think of it this way. But Orwell writes a simple sentence that begins ‘if we win this war,’ and the knife edge that the world was balanced on suddenly seems so stark.
It is the ‘if’ that is so powerful. Even if the victory was inevitable, if the allied forces were strong enough and so tactically positioned to make victory certain (and I doubt that was the case,) then it still won’t have seemed it at the time. The average person would still have had to face each day in the knowledge that things could have become a lot worse than they were at the time.
So there you go, I’m not saying anything that wasn’t already obvious. Just that reading Orwell’s words from 1941 gave me a little insight that all the war movies and TV documentaries hadn’t.