“Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom” is an informed, challenging meditation by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist (and part-time Mainer) Thomas E. Ricks. The author examines the rights of the individual in times of authoritarianism through the ideas, writings and actions of two of the 20th century’s most “necessary” figures.

“Necessary” is the driving word here for the general reader, historian or philosopher. It is a word to conjure with for it hangs on a human life, as Ricks makes clear. In 1931, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was struck by an automobile in New York and nearly killed. George Orwell (1903-1950) was shot through the neck by fascists during the Spanish War, escaping to Britain in 1937 with a price on his head by Stalinists. The two men never met, but admired each other and, as Ricks argues:

“Despite all their differences, their dominant priority, a commitment to human freedom, gave them common cause, and they were indeed vastly dissimilar men, with very different life trajectories. Churchill’s flamboyant extroversion, his skill with speech and his urgency to desperate wartime defense led him to a communal triumph that did much to shape our world today. Orwell’s increasingly phlegmatic and introverted personality, combined with a fierce idealism and a devotion to accuracy in observation and writing, brought him as a writer to protect a private place in the modern world.”

As an historian, I would never have considered Orwell and Churchill as yokefellows in any endeavor, and I am sure it would not have been uppermost in their thoughts. Churchill is generally seen as a man of blood and an imperialist who shifted parties and stood down both the Axis and the creeping damp of fascism in his own nation.

Winston Churchill Photo by Yousuf Karsh. Library and Archives Canada

Orwell began as a colonial policeman turned leftist turned pragmatist and was the author of such visionary and necessary works as “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949). That Ricks deftly sketches the life stories of both of these articulate Brits will come as no surprise to anyone who has read his book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006),” an essential slice of the history of our time. In “Fiasco,” Ricks demonstrated his excellent understanding of contemporary politicians, soldiers and journalists, and tactical and strategic policies. In writing “Churchill & Orwell,” he gained the long view, getting perspective on currents events, such as the rise of the unthinking right. In times of political uncertainty, Ricks writes that he finds himself drifting to the left; the writings of Churchill and Orwell help him understand why.

Ricks peels back the personal histories of both men to focus on the issue of personal liberty vs. authoritarian rule. For the two men, the rise of the Nazi and Soviet states conjured not only visceral horrors but the world of the big lie, the all-absorbing state. Orwell, who had gone to fight Franco and fascists in Spain, found his own Workers Party of Unified Marxism (POUM) liquidated by the Stalinists and saw “great battles reported where there had been no fighting.” Orwell wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

George Orwell AP file photo

The corruption of language brought such phrases as “pacification,” “elimination of unreliable elements,” indeed all the subsequent mouthings of our time, such as “fake news” and the reality of endless war.

Ricks writes that “Churchill’s speeches from the time remain good reading 75 years after their delivery. Knowing them is essential to understanding the man and his role in history.” A few years before the war, Churchill was a forgotten man. But through his writings and speeches as World War II loomed and then, he stood at the dead center of history speaking not for the aristocracy or the Empire but for the average Brit.

Not all readers will agree with Ricks’s construct, but anyone interested in the fate of personal freedom in the American government; the military-industrial complex; Asia and beyond; and the storing, sharing and hacking of personal data, owes it a careful read. I am going back for seconds.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.