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On George Orwell, Democracy and Greece

Jim Claven on why George Orwell's message in 1984 remains as current as the day it was written

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03 August 2017

This month has seen the publication of two new books by Melbourne author Dr Dennis Glover. As I read his new novel – The Last Man in Europe – and its companion book, a new edition of Orwell's 1984, introduced by Dennis, the relevance of their message to anyone interested in the modern history of Greece was clear.

Greece and its people have suffered the humiliations and terrors of dictatorship on more than one occasion. And the current economic crisis has seen the rise of a new generation of would-be demagogues, fortunately on the margins of Greek political life. Orwell's message remains as current as the day it was written.

The Last Man in Europe tells the story behind the creation of 1984, of the places and experiences that Orwell drew on to inform his writing. And to do so, he has travelled to many of these places. Dennis' pilgrimage took him to the isolated farmhouse on the Scottish Island of Jura, where Orwell finally set down to write the novel – with Homer's The Odyssey by his side. One reviewer describes Dennis' novel as like looking at an X-ray of 1984.

Originally conceived as a work of non-fiction, Dennis began to see the creation of his novel in a dramatic light, its conception flowing from key turning points in writer's life. And the first steps in the writing of 1984 came as Orwell - working in a small London bookshop, unsure of his future – in Dennis' words "a writer lost, a loser" –met his future wife Eileen and accepted the commission that would make that marriage a reality, taking him to the north of England to write The Road to Wigan Pier, his book about the impact of the 1930's depression.

It was here that Orwell came face to face with the local version of the fascist tide rising throughout Europe. Witnessing Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists at a local meeting, Orwell glimpsed a possible future facing humanity. The black uniforms, the drowning out of opposition, the inane re-chanting of their leaders name – and most of all the use of hatred and fear to gain support – were all features that would inform 1984. The desire to oppose dictatorship would propel Orwell and Eileen to join the international movement to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco's fascists. Here he would fight on the front-line and then be forced to flee Spain as the Republic began to devour its own supporters.

1984 is both a nightmarish vision of a world dominated by dictatorships, where individual liberty and common humanity are crushed in a society bent on mind-control and the threat of torture. It is a world dominated by lies, where black is white and where even language becomes a tool of control – with terms like "newspeak,""doublethink" and "the Ministry of Truth."

As the Second World War drew to an end, Orwell opposed the distortion of truth by both Stalinism and the increasingly oppressive anti-communism that opposed it. In this Orwell deplored the imposition of what he termed the "quisling governments" set up by either the Soviets or the West. Reporting on an anti-communist protest meeting held in London in the summer of 1945, Orwell noted that the speakers tried to defend the imposition by arms of the post-war settlement in Greece – which Orwell opposed.

In Orwell's view, the extremes of right and left both promoted a distorted picture of what was really happening in Europe. As he wrote in his newspaper column at the time, the arguments of either side were the same, "one is simply the other standing on its head. … suddenly black became white, and white black." The taking of hostages, purges, deportations, one-party elections, spheres of influence, fabricated referendum results – all considered acceptable as long as it is in defence of their own particular ideals, but condemned if "the enemy" is using them.

Orwell's fears and hopes can be read in the tragedy of modern Greece. The arrival of the comic dictator General Metaxas and his attempt to create a cult of personality around his diminished personage may seem comical from a distance – but tell that to the thousands arrested or forced to join in mindless rallies and called upon to chant in unison. All of these diminished Greece's public space and real unity of purpose, no doubt undermining her defence against the fascist invasion that ultimately came.

The defeat of fascism would give way to a bitter civil war. Ordinary people suffered under the lies and atrocities committed by the extremes of left and right. Communities were divided, hostages taken and "disappeared", those who were not with one side or the other faced the vengeance of whomever they were unfortunate enough to have found themselves.

Later a group of second-rate lower-ranking army officers would take advantage of political divisions to seize power – in the name of forestalling a fantasy left-wing coup, "fake news" 1967-style. We look at the images of the Colonel's Greece today and we may find it comical. It feels so out of place with the warm and welcoming hospitality of the Greek people. But this was as real as the dictatorships of Hitler or Stalin.

And Orwell's warnings were all too true then. Like their fascist predecessors, the poorly-educated dictators resented the educated. Their so-called "revolution" sought to enforce a stultifying intellectual conformity. They would try to force the adoption of the un-spoken "fake language" created in the 19th century, banning Classical Greek plays and forcing all newspapers to print the same awkwardly-written official versions of events. A teacher could be sacked for wearing a mini-skirt.

Yet this was real fascism. Lives were wrecked; people were imprisoned, tortured and killed. And in their bizarre "double-speak" world and despite their claims to be ruling in the name of Christian values, the Junta would force a right-wing coup on Cyprus and an attempted assassination of its democratically-elected leader, Archbishop Makarios – all leading to the tragedy of the Turkish invasion, the terrible effects of which we live with to this day.

Yet the Junta would fall, faced by popular opposition and its own false military pretensions. Few will remember the Junta and its grey personalities – but many will remember the opposition of Melina Mercouri, Mikis Theodorakis, the students of the Athens' Polytechnic and thousands of others. Maria Mercedes recent excellent cabaret, Greek Goddess, telling a new generation of Melina's stand against the dictatorship.

Mikis Theodorakis and Melina Mercouri.

Both books are an antidote to aspects of contemporary politics. Donald Trump's lying about the number of people attending his inauguration, a world where policy criticisms are rejected as "fake news" and spurious allegations are defended as "alternative facts" – are all testimony to the continuing relevance of Orwell's message. And in Australia we see the increasingly negative turn of public debate, with the motivations of opponents constantly disparaged, where positive policy proscriptions are opposed for the sake of political advantage – are all causes for momentary political depression.
Yes, Orwell would have been on the side of Melina and the opposition to the Greek Junta. Orwell believed in liberal democracy, with all its faults. His call is for all of us to oppose dictatorship, the corruption of thought and the lies told in defence of power. And as Dennis argues 1984 is ultimately an optimistic book. Faced with death, its hero Winston Smith ultimately refuses the regime's illogical dictates that "2+2=5."

For everyone interested in Orwell's 1984, in defending democracy, the pursuit of the truth and common decency, these new publications from Dr Dennis Glover will be a welcome addition to your winter reading.

* Jim Claven is a historian and freelance writer.
'The Last Man in Europe' and the new edition of 1984, with an introduction by Dennis Glover are both published by Melbourne's Black Inc and are available for purchase online from the publisher or at good bookshops. Dennis' novel will have both a UK and US release.

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