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As I read 1984, I began to think about actual totalitarian regimes. Most bear a striking resemblance to the world of Winston Smith…that of London, Airstrip One. George Orwell life coincided with the rise of some of the most truly terrifying totalitarian nations, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The beginning of the 20th century marked the birth of totalitarianism. Orwell, in many of his novels, sought to imagine it as it progressed to the end of the century. Thus, in the late 1940s, his vision of what 1984 would be was created.
Totalitarianism is when a government or controlling entity seeks to control every aspect of life, both public and private. One of the hallmarks of this is the repression of ideological opposition. In 1984, the state runs a police force known as the Thought Police. If the Thought Police determine that a person is “unorthodox,” that person disappears, and is sent to either a forced labor camp, or is executed. All physical record of the person is eliminated, as if they had never existed. In addition, the state runs initiatives to prevent unorthodox thought. Their elimination of the English language, and subsequent replacement with “Newspeak”, was aimed at preventing the communication of thought that goes against state ideology, by removing the words needed to form such ideas. Big Brother’s state appeals to the basest animalistic drives of violence and fear to create a society of completely obedient members.
These means of control may seem impossible to be used outside of a fictional setting, but regimes such as North Korea actively employ them. In North Korea, should someone be found with anti-state media, they are sent to a prison camp where they must endure grueling conditions. The North Korean state runs a media police force to find citizens with foreign materials. North Koreans are not aware of technology available in the Western world, including modern medical technology, or the internet. State run media assures North Koreans that they with a quality of life miles above that experienced by those in America. In the Soviet Union, Stalin led purges where vast numbers of (who he considered) political dissidents were sent to Siberian gulags to “experience the joys of Socialism through work.”
1984’s Oceania relies on the installment of Big Brother as a charismatic ideological figurehead. Winston’s peers worship Big Brother, and see him as a protector. Nearly all totalitarian regimes have a dominant figure. This is often referred to as a “cult of personality.” In North Korea, this is the Kim dynasty. In Nazi Germany, this was Hitler. In the Soviet Union, this was Lenin, and later, Stalin. In fascist Italy, this was Mussolini. These figures hold together the regime. They are often the creators of the state ideology, but regardless of this, they are always the ones who guide it.
I found it extremely interesting the nature of the proletariat in 1984. In all totalitarian regimes, the proletariat is either displayed as those who run the state, or are at least praised heavily by the state as being the backbone for society. Yet in the novel, Syme said that “the proles [proletariat] are less than human.” This is the only example of a totalitarian society I have seen so far that does not, at least in principle, praise the proletariat.
All totalitarian societies have an event that causes their emergence. In Nazi Germany, this was the post-World War I peace treaty that enacted harsh punishment on Germany. For the Soviet Union, this was the collapse of the tsarist system of government, as tsar Nicholas II poorly governed his people, leading to famine. The question I have right now is this: What brought Big Brother to power in 1984?
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