As I Please

in Tribune

12 January 1945

George Orwell

SOME time back a correspondent wrote to ask whether I had seen the exhibition of waxworks, showing German atrocities, which has been on show in London for a year or more. It is advertised outside with such captions as: HORRORS OF THE CONCENTRATION CAMP. COME INSIDE AND SEE REAL NAZI TORTURES. FLOGGING, CRUCIFIXION, GASCHAMBERS, ETC. CHILDREN’S AMUSEMENT SECTION NO EXTRA CHARGE.

I did go and see this exhibition a long time ago, and I would like to warn prospective visitors that it is most disappointing. To begin with many of the figures are not life-size, and I suspect that some of them are not even real waxworks, but merely dressmakers’ dummies with new heads attached. And secondly, the tortures are not nearly so fearful as you are led to expect by the posters outside. The whole exhibition is grubby, unlifelike and depressing. But the exhibitors are, I suppose, doing their best, and the captions are interesting in the complete frankness of their appeal to sadism and masochism. Before the war, if you were a devotee of all-in wrestling, or wrote letters to your M.P. to protest against the abolition of flogging, or haunted second-hand bookshops in search of such books as The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber, you laid yourself open to very unpleasant suspicions. Moreover, you were probably aware of your own motives and somewhat ashamed of them. Now, however, you can wallow in the most disgusting descriptions of torture and massacre, not only without any sensation of guilt, but with the feeling that you are performing a praiseworthy political action.

I am not suggesting that the stories about Nazi atrocities are untrue. To a great extent I think they are true. These horrors certainly happened in German concentration camps before the war, and there is no reason why they should have stopped since. But they are played up largely because they give the newspapers a pretext for pornography. This morning’s papers are splashing the official British Army Report on Nazi atrocities. They are careful to inform you that naked women were flogged, sometimes spotlighting this detail by means of a headline. The journalists responsible know very well what they are doing. They know that innumerable people get a sadistic kick out of thinking about torture, especially the torture of women, and they are cashing in on this widespread neurosis. No qualms need be felt, because these deeds are committed by the enemy, and the enjoyment that one gets out of them can be disguised as disapproval. And one can get a very similar kick out of barbarous actions committed by one’s own side so long as they are thought of as the just punishment of evil-doers.

We have not actually got to the point of Roman gladiatorial shows yet, but we could do so if the necessary pretext were supplied. If, for instance, it were announced that the leading war criminals were to be eaten by lions or trampled to death by elephants in the Wembley Stadium, I fancy that the spectacle would be quite well attended.

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I INVITE attention to an article entitled ‘The Truth about Mihailovich?’ (the author of it also writes for Tribune, by the way) in the current World Review. It deals with the campaign in the British press and the B.B.C. to brand Mihailovich as a German agent.

Jugoslav politics are very complicated and I make no pretence of being an expert on them. For all I know it was entirely right on the part of Britain as well as the U.S.S.R. to drop Mihailovich and support Tito. But what interests me is the readiness, once this decision had been taken, of reputable British newspapers to connive at what amounted to forgery in order to discredit the man whom they had been backing a few months earlier. There is no doubt that this happened. The author of the article gives details of one out of a number of instances in which material facts were suppressed in the most impudent way. Presented with very strong evidence to show that Mihailovich was not a German agent, the majority of our newspapers simply refused to print it, while repeating the charges of treachery just as before.

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IN the same number of World Review I note that Mr Edward Hulton remarks rather disapprovingly that ‘the small city of Athens possesses far more daily newspapers than London.’ All I can say is, good luck to Athens! It is only when there are large numbers of newspapers, expressing all tendencies, that there is some chance of getting at the truth. Counting evenings, London has only twelve daily papers, and they cover the whole of the south of England and penetrate as far north as Glasgow. When they all decide to tell the same lie, there is no minority press to act as a check. In pre-war France the press was largely venal and scurrilous, but you could dig more news out of it than out of the British press, because every political faction had its paper and every viewpoint got a hearing. I shall be surprised if Athens keeps its multiplicity of newspapers under the kind of government that we apparently intend to impose.

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