During the mid-1930s and 40s George Orwell became an avid collector of pamphlets. His astounding collection, totalling more than 2,700 items and dating from around 1915 to 1945, was donated to the British Museum Library at Orwell’s request by his widow, Sonia Orwell, in 1955.
With the growing threat of a new world conflict, the use of pamphlets as a format for communicating political ideas became increasingly popular from the mid to late-1930s. Orwell kept pamphlets from across the political spectrum, including propaganda from the British Union of Fascists, the India League, the Peace Pledge Union, and the Communist Party of Great Britain. There were also publications from lesser-known organisations: ‘The Workers’ Friend’ Association, the Leninist League, the Russia Today Society, the Polish Labour Underground Press, the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, Vera Brittain’s Bomb Restriction Committee, and even the Society of Individualists. Arriving at the Library in boxes organised by Orwell, some of the material had been classified by the writer into three categories: Anarchist (An), Labour Party (LP) and Trotskyist (Tr). Ultimately, the collection constitutes a fascinating overview of the social and political debates taking place in Britain before and during the Second World War.
Propaganda and literature
One of Orwell’s main preoccupations was how propaganda influenced people’s opinions, a crucial theme in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, as a political writer, he was also very interested in the relationship between propaganda and literature. In the article ‘Pamphlet Literature’, Orwell discusses the importance of the pamphlet as a channel of free expression, but laments the lack of good writers who work in this format, labelling most examples as ‘rubbish’ and written either by ‘lunatics’ or issued by political parties.
What are the pamphlets shown here?
• The Wisdom of Gandhi in His Own Words (1943), excerpts from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, the political campaigner who advocated non-violent protest and fought for Indian independence from British-rule. Edited by Roy Walker with cover design by Arthur Wragg.
• What are you Going to Do about It? (1936), a pacifist pamphlet written by novelist Aldous Huxley and produced by the Peace Pledge Union.
• Poison Gas (1935), an anti-chemical warfare pamphlet produced by the Union of Democratic Control, with cover design by E McKnight Kauffer.
• Terror in Europe – The fate of the Jews (1942) produced by the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, with writings by the Russian science fiction writer Alexei Tolstoy (credited as the first person to formally expose/ascertain the Nazi’s use of gas as a method for mass genocide during the Holocaust), ‘A Polish underground worker’, and a transcript of a speech made by the German writer Thomas Mann in San Francisco titled ‘The Fall of the European Jews’.
• Britain First, containing a speech by Oswald Mosley for the British Union of Fascists at Earls Court Exhibition Hall, 16 July 1939. Influenced by the rise of European fascism such as Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party in Italy, Mosley founded and led the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Fascism is an extreme right-wing, nationalistic ideology that promotes authoritarian/totalitarian political and social rule, underpinned by racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic doctrines. Please note that this pamphlet contains inflammatory and racist content.
- Full title:
- A collection of pamphlets, mainly political, formed by George Orwell
- c. 1915–c. 1945
- Pamphlet / Illustration / Image
- Held by:
- British Library
- Usage terms:
- The Wisdom of Gandhi in His Own Words
Arthur Wragg (cover design): © Estate of Judy Brook. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: This material is in the Public Domain.
What are you Going to Do about It?
Aldous Huxley: © The Aldous and Laura Huxley Literary Trust, Mark Treven Huxley and Teresa Huxley. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
Peace Pledge Union: © Peace Pledge Union. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
E McKnight Kauffer (cover design): © Simon Rendall. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
Text: This material is in the Public Domain.
Terror in Europe – The fate of the Jews
National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror: © Family of Eleanor Rathbone. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
Thomas Mann: This material is in the Public Domain.
Oswald Mosley: © Estate of Oswald Mosley. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
British Union of Fascists: © British Union of Fascists. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
- Article by:
- John Sutherland
- Power and conflict, Literature 1900–1950
John Sutherland describes the biographical and historical events that produced George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which combines memoir with a study of poverty in two European cities in the late 1920s.
- Article by:
- Roger Luckhurst
- Visions of the future, Power and conflict, Literature 1900–1950
Roger Luckhurst describes the political environment in which George Orwell wrote and published Nineteen Eighty-Four, and analyses its different – and often opposing – interpretations.
- Article by:
- Greg Buzwell
- Power and conflict
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany conducted a sustained bombing campaign on cities and towns across Britain. The raids killed 43,000 civilians and lasted for eight months. Here Greg Buzwell examines how novelists have woven the effects of the Blitz into their work, from Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen in the 1940s to Sarah Waters in the 21st century.
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