As I Please

in Tribune

31 March 1944

George Orwell

THE OTHER day I attended a press conference at which a newly arrived Frenchman, who was described as an ‘eminent jurist’—he could not give his name or other specifications because of his family in France—set forth the French point of view on the recent execution of Pucheu. I was surprised to note that he was distinctly on the defensive, and seemed to think that the shooting of Pucheu was a deed that would want a good deal of justification in British and American eyes. His main point was that Pucheu was not shot for political reasons, but for the ordinary crime of ‘collaborating with the enemy’, which has always been punishable by death under French law.

An American correspondent asked the question: ‘Would collaborating with the enemy be equally a crime in the case of some petty official—an inspector of police, for example?’ ‘Absolutely the same,’ answered the Frenchman. As he had just come from France he was presumably voicing French opinion, but one can assume that in practice only the most active collaborators will be put to death. Any really big-scale massacre, if it really happened, would be quite largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. For there is much evidence that large sections of the French population were more or less pro-German in 1940 and only changed their minds when they found out what the Germans were like.

I do not want people like Pucheu to escape, but a few very obscure quislings, including one or two Arabs, have been shot as well, and this whole business of taking vengeance on traitors and captured enemies raises questions which are strategic as well as moral. The point is that if we shoot too many of the small rats now we may have no stomach for dealing with the big ones when the time comes. It is difficult to believe that the Fascist régimes can be thoroughly crushed without the killing of the responsible individuals, to the number of some hundreds or even thousands in each country. But it could well happen that all the truly guilty people will escape in the end, simply because public opinion has been sickened beforehand by hypocritical trials and cold-blooded executions.

In effect this was what happened in the last war. Who that was alive in those years does not remember the maniacal hatred of the Kaiser that was fostered in this country? Like Hitler in this war, he was supposed to be the cause of all our ills. No one doubted that he would be executed as soon as caught, and the only question was what method would be adopted. Magazine articles were written in which the rival merits of boiling in oil, drawing and quartering and breaking on the wheel were carefully examined. The Royal Academy exhibitions were full of allegorical pictures of incredible vulgarity, showing the Kaiser being thrown into Hell. And what came of it in the end? The Kaiser retired to Holland and (though he had been ‘dying of cancer’ in 1915) lived another twenty-two years, one of the richest men in Europe.

So also with all the other ‘war criminals’. After all the threats and promises that had been made, no war criminals were tried: to be exact, a dozen people or so were put on trial, given sentences of imprisonment and soon released. And though, of course, the failure to crush the German military caste was due to the conscious policy of the Allied leaders, who were terrified of revolution in Germany, the revulsion of feeling in ordinary people helped to make it possible. They did not want revenge when it was in their power. The Belgian atrocities, Miss Cavell, the U-boat captains who had sunk passenger ships without warning and machine-gunned the survivors—somehow it was all forgotten. Ten million innocent men had been killed, and no one wanted to follow it up by killing a few thousand guilty ones.

Whether we do or don’t shoot the Fascists and quislings who happen to fall into our hands is probably not very important in itself. What is important is that revenge and ‘punishment’ should have no part in our policy or even in our day-dreams. Up to date, one of the mitigating features of this war is that in this country there has been very little hatred. There has been none of the nonsensical racialism that there was last time—no pretence that all Germans have faces like pigs, for instance. Even the word ‘Hun’ has not really popularized itself. The Germans in this country, mostly refugees, have not been well treated, but they have not been meanly persecuted as they were last time. In the last war it would have been very unsafe, for instance, to speak German in a London street. Wretched little German bakers and hairdressers had their shops sacked by the mob, German music fell out of favour, even the breed of dachshunds almost disappeared because no one wanted to have a ‘German dog’. And the weak British attitude in the early period of German rearmament had a direct connexion with those follies of the war years.

Hatred is an impossible basis for policy, and curiously enough it can lead to over-softness as well as to over-toughness. In the war of 1914-18 the British people were whipped up into a hideous frenzy of hatred, they were fed on preposterous lies about crucified Belgian babies and German factories where corpses were made into margarine: and then as soon as the war stopped they suffered the natural revulsion, which was all the stronger because the troops came home, as British troops usually do, with a warm admiration for the enemy. The result was an exaggerated pro-German reaction which set in about 1920 and lasted till Hitler was well in the saddle. Throughout those years all ‘enlightened’ opinion (see any number of the Daily Herald before 1929, for instance) held it as an article of faith that Germany bore no responsibility for the war. Treitschke, Bernhardi, the Pan-Germans, the ‘nordic’ myth, the open boasts about ‘Der Tag’ which the Germans had been making from 1900 onwards—all this went for nothing. The Versailles Treaty was the greatest infamy the world has ever seen: few people had even heard of Brest-Litovsk. All this was the price of that four years’ orgy of lying and hatred.

Anyone who tried to awaken public opinion during the years of Fascist aggression from 1933 onwards knows what the aftereffects of that hate propaganda were like. ‘Atrocities’ had come to be looked on as synonymous with ‘lies’. But the stories about the German concentration camps were atrocity stories: therefore they were lies—so reasoned the average man. The left-wingers who tried to make the public see that Fascism was an unspeakable horror were fighting against their own propaganda of the past fifteen years.

That is why—though I would not save creatures like Pucheu even if I could—I am not happy when I see trials of ‘war criminals’, especially when they are very petty criminals and when witnesses are allowed to make inflammatory political speeches. Still less am I happy to see the Left associating itself with schemes to partition Germany, enrol millions of Germans in forced-labour gangs and impose reparations which will make the Versailles reparations look like a bus fare. All these vindictive day-dreams, like those of 1914-18, will simply make it harder to have a realistic post-war policy. If you think now in terms of ‘making Germany pay’, you will quite likely find yourself praising Hitler in 1950. Results are what matter, and one of the results we want from this war is to be quite sure that Germany will not make war again. Whether this is best achieved by ruthlessness or generosity I am not certain: but I am quite certain that either of these will be more difficult if we allow ourselves to be influenced by hatred.

As I Please - Index

Back    |    Words Home    |    Orwell Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback