A dark examination of the workings of a totalitarian state in an imagined future, George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a timeless classic, relevant in the modern age to almost any setting. Yet it is helpful to know the particular circumstances under which it was written: a pivotal and defining moment in world history, and in Orwell’s own life as well.

Orwell wrote the book in the years immediately following the end of World War II. Though Hitler and his allies were defeated, the war was a sobering experience and, for many, a disillusioning one. Three decades earlier, World War I had been touted as the war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Yet the flawed treaty that ended World War I led to an imperfect peace at best, and in the coming years governments came to power that were anything but democratic—most notably, Hitler’s Nazi government in Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy.

On the other side of the political spectrum was the Communist government in the Soviet Union. At the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, many liberals and left-leaning thinkers held out hope that the new government would lead to a truly egalitarian society. Under Lenin’s leadership, however, the Soviet Union engaged in aggressive military expansion beyond the initial Russian borders. When Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin assumed power, the government became increasingly authoritarian and repressive. Most relevant to 1984 was a series of so-called “purges” in the 1930s in which Stalin turned on former allies in the Communist Party (many of whom were leaders in the 1917 Revolution), accused them of being traitors or “counterrevolutionaries,” and had them tried and executed. The purges spread from the government to the general population, targeting writers, intellectuals, artists, and religious leaders among others. Hundreds of thousands were executed or sent to prison camps. It is likely that over a million died in a period of two or three years; during the height of this repression,...

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Essays About 1984