Katherine Edwards

Image © Simon Harriyott

The 25th of June this year is the 110th anniversary of the birth of the creator of that most darkly compelling and well known of all dystopias, Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Like all such speculative fiction Orwell’s dystopia holds up a distorting mirror to reality.  It subjects some of its distinguishing features to extremes of enlargement and extrapolation, to explore them and warn of their implications.  Such flights of imagination stand or fall by their plausibility, their emotional power and what they reveal about reality by recasting it in a different and distorted form. Orwell would not engage his readers if his dystopia didn’t communicate something significant about the human condition. One aspect of his message, I will argue, has particular current significance.

Among the ingredients which give the society imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four such enduring power is the idea of government control and manipulation of the past.  The protagonist Winston’s work for the Ministry of Truth’s Records Department involves the ingenious and systematic falsification and obliteration of the historical record through adjustment of documents and destruction of originals.  This is in order that ‘history’ complies with the current policies of Big Brother’s regime.

It is not difficult to see why Orwell chose government appropriation of the past as a key ingredient of his dystopia.  Nineteen Eighty-Four was written at a time when grotesque manipulation of history by governments was fresh in many people’s memories or indeed current.  Stalin’s censors were airbrushing ‘unpersons’ from photographs.   Not long before, the Nazi regime in Germany had been systematically falsifying the archaeological record to bolster recently invented Aryan history, and enlisting the help of leading academics in the attempt.

Sometimes it takes a novelist’s emotional insight to draw out the human implications of a phenomenon which the more detached analysis of a social scientist or political commentator can miss. As well as showing us what a powerful tool the control of history can be to governments, Orwell reveals why the past has such a tenacious hold over all of us. The people inhabiting Orwell’s dystopia have no means of ascertaining the truth of half remembered notions of their past.  Not only do they lack the means of challenging government claims about what has changed, but they have lost sight of their identity and their psychological moorings, and exist in a helpless state of disorientation.  They embody E Sreedharan’s words ‘A community without a knowledge of its own past is like a man who has suddenly lost his memory.  To a society in which no-one knew any history, the whole world would be new.’

Yet lacking a sense of their past, they do not give up their urge to fill the vacuum, as displayed by Winston’s poignantly tenacious attempts to discover from an elderly man in a pub what life was like before the revolution.  This rings very true emotionally. It seems to be part of human nature, perhaps stemming from the urge to transcend our mortality, to seek to project our identity backwards, to connect with those that have gone before.  All human societies, even preliterate ones, seem to have had bards, storytellers, troubadours and artists fulfilling this need.  As Simon Schama put it last week ‘history is a serious matter… It’s not just a stroll down memory lane …It counts, it matters, and it affects how we feel about each other as a connected family of memory’.

So a monopoly on the fulfilment of this need would be a frighteningly powerful tool in government hands. History can supply the material, most obviously the heroes and heroines, for all kinds of causes: racial superiority, proletarian consciousness, nationalism, religious claims.  It can raise, legitimise and glorify certain groups, perspectives and ideas, while marginalising others.  Orwell brings home to us the extraordinary power that history confers.  He raises the question of whether the desire by government to control public understanding of the past is compatible with a genuine commitment to democracy.

At a time when an increasingly bitter public debate is raging about the attempt by the UK government to re-write the history curriculum to ‘celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world’, this message is as urgent and relevant as ever before.  If, as Orwell wrote, ‘the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history’, the fact that the new history curriculum marginalises women, and non-white ethnic groups acquires an added poignancy.  A recent caller on Radio 4’s Any Answers was recently challenged to defend his recommendation that all Muslims – but not other religious groups such as Catholics – leave the UK.  After a moment’s hesitation he grasped instinctively for history, or rather a version of ‘history’, to support this stance, a version presenting Muslims as the newcomers, the aliens, the ‘other’ – a version that is implicit in Gove’s new curriculum which omits any mention of Muslims and Islam from the ‘story of these islands’.

The human urge to turn to the past for legitimation, for authority and for ammunition, makes it vitally important that whoever has ultimate say over the drafting of the history curriculum approaches the task with caution, humility and intellectual integrity.  Orwell’s oft quoted claim “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” is, like his overall formulation, extreme, but contains enough truth to be disquieting in today’s circumstances.  We are currently in danger of permitting government appropriation of the past, with the opposition and most of the academic community (with some prominent exceptions) largely silent, and many elements in the press actively supporting its appropriation.   Before we surrender this element of our democratic freedom, and hand over to this government control over the next generation’s understanding of history, Orwell’s haunting dystopia should give us pause.

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