Skip to main content

A Historical Analysis of George Orwell's "1984"

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in creative writing and English.

Could the events described in Orwell's "1984" actually happen?

Could the events described in Orwell's "1984" actually happen?

Historical Context

George Orwell wrote 1984 right after World War II as a warning against totalitarianism. In 1946, Orwell wrote: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it." Orwell was firmly against the Stalin regime and communism in general and considered himself a "democratic socialist."

Big Brother and Stalin

Much of the book was based on the Soviet Union under Stalin's rule. Big Brother himself was based on Joseph Stalin. The "Two Minutes Hate" (the film that all Party members are forced to watch on the telescreen every day showing the Party's enemies, so that the Party members can express their hatred for their enemies and for democracy) is similar to the propaganda films during WWII from all sides. The “Two Minutes Hate” also serves to deify Big Brother in a sort of quasi-religious observance. This is similar to tactics used by real-world politicians throughout history, including Stalin.

"Big Brother is watching you."

"Big Brother is watching you."

Goldstein and Trotsky

Similarly, Emmanuel Goldstein, the rumored leader of the Brotherhood, is based on the exiled Soviet Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky was an influential politician during the beginning of the Soviet Union, but was expelled from the Communist Party after a power struggle with Stalin. This mirrors the character Goldstein in 1984, because Goldstein is rumored to have been one of the founders (along with Big Brother), but left and started the dissident organization, The Brotherhood. Goldstein is a former member of the inner circle of the Party, but became a principal enemy of the state upon his involvement with The Brotherhood. Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is similar to Trotsky’s essay, The Revolution Betrayed: What Is the Soviet Union and Where Is It Going?, which was published in 1937.

Rewriting History

Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth in the Records Department, where his job is to rewrite history. They have to rewrite anything that makes The Party or Big Brother look bad, such as when Big Brother makes a prediction that turns out to be wrong, or to remove any mention of people who have become “unpersons” etc. This is similar to the Soviet Union’s history of rewriting history textbooks to remove pictures and information about politicians who were no longer supported by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union made sure to rewrite past events to make Stalin and his government look better. This is the role of the Ministry of Truth in 1984.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

Thoughtcrimes and Mind Control

The idea of “thoughtcrimes” plays a major role in 1984, and is based on historical precedent. “Thoughtcrimes” refer to any thoughts deemed illegal by the Party. The punishment for “thoughtcrimes” is similar to the USSR’s use of psychiatry to commit political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals after diagnosing them with schizophrenia, where they were “treated” with psychoactive drugs, presumably to keep them out of public eye and to discredit them. With the psychoactive drugs, it was likely easier to control their minds. At any rate, the USSR sought to tightly control the thoughts of its people and treat any disagreeing ideas as mental illness. This is similar to 1984, because people could be tortured for thoughtcrimes until they were forced to love Big Brother and the Party.

A Warning for the Future

Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning against letting the events of WWII happen again in the future. The novel warns of what can happen to a society that turns a blind eye to corrupt, power-hungry leaders and allows their freedoms to be slowly taken away, one by one.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber


Patricia Simons on November 28, 2018:

I have the book and found it an extremely dark book to read. It is as though he knew what was being planned for our world's future and wanted to warn everyone. Maybe that is why he wrote it so depressing and a way of life no one wants. You should read it, but with an open mind.

Jennifer Wilber (author) from Cleveland, Ohio on June 13, 2018:

It's a classic for a reason!

Larry Slawson from North Carolina on June 13, 2018:

I’ve heard about this book and have always meant to read it. Sounds really good.