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George Orwell‘s Enduring Lessons from His 1940 Review of Mein Kampf


In March 1940, as the armies of Nazi Germany were beginning their march across Western Europe, George Orwell published a review of Adolf Hitler‘s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf. Orwell, already an acclaimed author and critic, had long been an outspoken opponent of fascism. His experiences fighting against Franco‘s forces in the Spanish Civil War had left him with a visceral hatred of authoritarian ideologies and a keen understanding of their workings. Applying this hard-earned knowledge to his reading of Hitler‘s book, Orwell produced a remarkably prescient analysis that not only laid bare the true goals and character of the Nazi regime, but identified the psychological roots of fascism‘s appeal. Eighty years later, as the world grapples with a resurgence of far-right populism, Orwell‘s insights remain urgently relevant.

The Historical Context

To fully appreciate the significance of Orwell‘s review, it is important to understand the historical context in which it appeared. In the early 1930s, many Western leaders and intellectuals had viewed Hitler as a man they could work with, or even admire. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George met with Hitler in 1936 and came away convinced that he was "the greatest living German" and "the George Washington of Germany" (Kershaw, 2001, p. 371). As late as 1938, the prime ministers of Britain and France agreed to let Hitler annex part of Czechoslovakia in a misguided attempt to appease him.

But by the time Orwell‘s review appeared in 1940, Hitler‘s intentions were becoming harder to ignore. The Nazis had invaded Poland the previous year, setting off World War II. The Gestapo‘s reign of terror against Jews and political opponents inside Germany was an open secret. Kristallnacht, the pogrom against Jewish businesses and synagogues, had made front-page news around the world in 1938. In this context, Orwell‘s unsparing assessment of Hitler served as a wakeup call for anyone still holding on to illusions about the Nazi leader.

Orwell on Hitler‘s Global Ambitions

One of the most striking aspects of Orwell‘s review is how accurately he grasped the scale of Hitler‘s ambitions. Even in 1940, some still wanted to believe that the Führer‘s interests were limited to uniting ethnic Germans and rectifying the supposed injustices of the Versailles Treaty. But Orwell, drawing evidence from the pages of Mein Kampf, insisted that Hitler‘s goals were far more expansive. "He intends to smash England first and then Russia," Orwell explained, with the ultimate aim of creating "a contiguous state of 250 million Germans" that would stretch "from Calais to Vladivostok" (Orwell, 1940).

Orwell envisioned the nightmarish empire that would result:

A horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder. (Orwell, 1940)

This was not hyperbole. As historian Timothy Snyder has documented, the Nazis‘ Generalplan Ost called for the enslavement and extermination of up to 45 million people in Eastern Europe and Russia in order to make way for German settlers (Snyder, 2015, p. 163). Orwell saw in Hitler‘s writings a "fixed vision of a monomaniac" bent on global conquest (Orwell, 1940).

The Roots of Hitler‘s Appeal

In addition to grasping the enormity of Hitler‘s designs, Orwell also understood the basis of his populist appeal. He pointed to two key factors:

  1. The image of grievance: Hitler cast himself as a political martyr, giving voice to the German people‘s sense of victimhood after their defeat in World War I. "From Hitler‘s autobiographical sketch one can learn something about the man‘s early life — his period as a bum in Vienna, his war experiences, his hatred of the Jews and Marxists, and so forth," Orwell wrote. "The thing that most impressed me was that he appeared to have done hardly any reading of any description — all his ideas could have been derived from the back page of Der Sturmer [a Nazi newspaper]." (Orwell, 1940). But this very lack of sophistication allowed Hitler to channel the resentments and prejudices of the masses.

  2. The promise of struggle and sacrifice: Orwell argued that Hitler appealed to a dark side of human nature — the desire for conflict, hardship and self-abnegation in service of a higher cause. "Human beings don‘t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice," Orwell wrote, in one of the review‘s most famous passages (Orwell, 1940). Hitler offered Germans the seductive vision of a heroic, racial destiny that they could achieve through war against the nation‘s supposed enemies.

These two appeals — stoking grievance while offering a narrative of national renewal through violence — are pillars of fascist rhetoric, and Orwell recognized them as such. Present-day far-right parties and leaders have updated this playbook for the 21st century, substituting international institutions, immigrants, and Muslims for some of Hitler‘s scapegoats. But the underlying psychology remains much the same.

The Lasting Relevance of Orwell‘s Anti-Fascism

Orwell‘s review of Mein Kampf was just one salvo in a career spent fighting totalitarianism in all its guises. His experiences in Spain had shown him that Soviet-style communism posed its own threats to freedom and human dignity — as he would so memorably depict in his later novels Animal Farm and 1984. But fascism, with its overt embrace of racism, militarism and autocracy, always remained his paramount enemy.

Orwell‘s anti-fascist writings resonate today because they model the sort of clear-sighted, principled opposition that these ideologies demand. Too often, as in the 1930s, those in positions of power delude themselves into thinking they can tame or accommodate the radical right. Orwell rejected such wishful thinking. He understood that fascism had to be actively resisted, not merely discouraged.

The power of Orwell‘s 1940 review stems not only from its predictive accuracy, but from its moral clarity. At a time of equivocation and doubt, Orwell was unafraid to name things for what they were. "To study Hitler‘s utterances in detail would be simply a waste of time," he wrote in the review‘s unflinching final lines. "Nationalistic fervor and religious fervor are very much alike as psychological phenomena, nationalism being in effect a religion, and Hitler‘s appeal is almost solely to the sense of martyrdom and the will to self-sacrifice" (Orwell, 1940). These were not reassuring words to read on the eve of a world war, but they were necessary ones.


Today, as in Orwell‘s time, the allure of far-right populism has resurfaced in many parts of the world. While the specific circumstances and grievances may differ from those of interwar Europe, the essential appeals that Orwell identified — stoking resentment and scapegoating marginal groups while peddling fantasies of national rebirth — remain very much in use. And now, as then, mainstream leaders and institutions often seem ill-equipped to effectively counter these appeals.

But Orwell‘s example provides a model for how to confront the far-right threat. It begins with a commitment to seeing things clearly, and describing them accurately. It requires a willingness to struggle and sacrifice in defense of democratic values — the "common sense" that Orwell knew could never be taken for granted. Above all, it demands the courage to name fascism when it appears and to resist it with all of our might. Eighty years after he published his review of Mein Kampf, this may be George Orwell‘s most enduring lesson.


  • Kershaw, I. (2001). Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis. W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Orwell, G. (1940). Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. New English Weekly, March 21, 1940.
  • Snyder, T. (2015). Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Tim Duggan Books.

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