It takes so much energy and time for the Party to change every piece of information retroactively about the war situation. But since they are already the only source of news, why do they care so much about doing it?

For example, when Oceania switches sides from Eastasia to Eurasia, why does the Party care to inform the people about this? Why can't they just pretend to still be on Eastasia's side?

Isn't it the in Party's interest to try to minimize the conflict between people's memory, and records? Otherwise, people may realize that those records are false, and they could secretly turn against the Party.

  • 37
    Are you certain that they're switching sides at all?
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 18:43
  • 2
    Not at all. But the last paragraph of my question still holds then.
    – AstroRP
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 18:44
  • 34
    Are we even certain there's really a war going on? My gut feeling is that the reason for continually re-writing historical records is so that at any time there are only approved records in existence. By repeatedly re-writing the official history, there is a continuous process of shedding undesirable facts. But I have no evidence that this is canonically correct.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 18:45
  • 2
    If there is really a war going on, then certainly some citizens need to know who's on which side. And if there are ever soldiers returning home, then that knowledge might spread.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 18:49
  • 70
    No, it is in the party's interest to MAXIMIZE conflict between people's memory and records. The record is true, even if it's false - especially if it's false. This is how you crush individuality and teach them to love Big Brother. You accept 2+2=5 without questioning it, because the state said so.
    – rld
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 19:34

5 Answers 5


At the outset of the novel, the Party isn't playing a fair game, in which people need to be persuaded and may choose to comply or not. The Party largely has won. Their aim is never, ever to inform. It is only to further subjugate.

There is one major misconception in the question: the Party does not want to minimize the conflict between peoples' memories and the current situation as it is described to them.

The point wasn't for the government's position to be plausible and convincing to most people, it was to extend the government's authoritarianism so completely that people would adjust their cognition to suit rather than question the government's message. That's exactly what doublethink is-- having access to information which must be literally correct while being able to not reject conflicting "official" information to any degree.

But more broadly the degree of effort required to update historical records isn't relevant. People need something to do with their time, lest their thoughts turn in directions the government doesn't want. It's also meaningful to the government that work not improve peoples' standards of living. A repetitive, dull task which can never really be completed suits those just fine. Plus, in that setting, who would even be rifling through historical records, and for what purpose?

It is also helpful to the government's aims to have historical information either not exist or be completely unreliable, and once again this mechanism helps. The news needs to be disseminated (the conditioning the government wants to instill needs regular messaging to individual people), and any physical medium for that (such as newspapers) can leave a record behind. Constant tampering with records makes that less impactful.

The government in 1984 is also explicitly engaged in efforts to destroy information in the human mind. And I don't mean eliminate inconvenient facts, I mean cause meaningful harm to the concept of epistemology.

The efforts towards Newspeak are the most blatant example of this I can think of offhand-- the effort is to debase language to the extent that many ideas cannot be expressed at all, let alone considered or transmitted between people. Making sources of knowledge about the world unreliable furthers that.

This is of a piece with the core government ministries having names which exactly contradict their purposes, and the government's mantras like "War is peace".

Consistency exists in some places, but it is more of habit and not any sort of consistency of information. The chess problems in the newspapers are a good example of this: white always wins, and black (whomever that may represent) always loses. In that sense, it simply doesn't matter which nation Oceania is at war with.

Finally, the consequence you imagine is not too much of a threat. The Party works, above all, to maintain itself in power. That is fundamentally what the Thought Police are for. The entire arc of the novel is an example of just how hard the Party works to root out and quell even the mildest stirrings of dissension, let alone meaningful rebellious action. The Party even maintains the idea of a specific, active rebel element as a further tool of social conditioning and neutralizing dissent.

  • 7
    FWIW, I'd be willing to consider even O'Brien's job as another form of busy-work, albeit at a slightly higher level than Smith's.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 20:34
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    This is true, but I don't think the war serves the sole purpose to act as doublethink material, eve though though it is one of the most blatant examples ("weren't we allies with these guys yesterday?"). Otherwise, this is a good example for the epic quote: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." The Party controls the present, so they can rewrite history. And by rewriting history, they can ensure that they stay in charge.
    – Amarth
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 20:34
  • 6
    This is the correct answer. I would add that one additional reason that the Party wants a conflict between peoples' memories and the current situation to exist is because forcing the proles and the Outer Party to ritually affirm their doublethink demonstrates the party's power. O'Brien explicitly instructs Smith that the point of power is power. Doublethink extends the sphere in which power operates from outward obedience and into the minds of the dominated.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 20:42
  • Not so sure the Party has won... It is explicitly stated that even though they control the Thought Police and have 15% of the population in the Outer Party, they are in constant fear of an uprising among the far more numerous Proletariat. Commented Jan 22, 2020 at 10:20
  • @OscarBravo It's a while ago that I read 1984, but "constant fear" is not the message I got. Real authoritarian governments are in constant fear because people still have free will and a certain level of independent observation of basics facts about the world. In 1984, the proles have nothing. As long as this stays the case (and nothing in the book indicates how this would, even could, change), there is no danger to the inner party at all.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 16:33

Upper_Case has written a great in-universe answer. I would like to add an out-of-universe perspective.

Orwell was writing this in 1948 and he was in many ways talking about his own time.

During WWII, the Soviet Union was England's ally and friend. Three years after the end of the war, they were the main enemy. While there was no overt war, the Cold War had certainly begun.

Meanwhile, West-Germany had gone the other way. Sure, there were still English and American soldiers stationed there, but the new West-German leaders were our friends!

Orwell speeds up the event by letting the enemy change in the middle of a speech, but even three years is a short time for such a big change.

David Tonhofer comments that Orwell was also refering to his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. There the pro-Stalin Communists and the anti-Stalin Communists start out as allies against common enemies. Then suddenly they were enemies. The change happened over a period of about a month in May/June 1937. Orwell had to flee back to England to save his life.

There are also other parallels between the book and the world at the time.

In short, Orwell was writing about propaganda and "Fake News". While the details change, the main theme remains frightfully relevant.

  • 5
    Also based on Orwell's experience in Catalonia, where the POUM, with which he had signed up, previously allied with Stalin's local branch for this particular funshow, became "the enemy" overnight, with members to be dragged away and eliminated. As to the "today" part, I also just read the nice phrase: These journalists do not simply “go along” with disinformation, they jingoistically cheer for the destruction of nations and peoples that they know virtually nothing about. Indeed. Money is cheap and people are cheap, and here we are. Commented Jan 22, 2020 at 20:36
  • 1
    I'd also add that there was a whole bunch of shuffling around of party positions in 1939, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pack was signed. Up to that point the Nazis and Communists had been mortal enemies. At least in France, I know that a number of Communist Party members got expelled for protesting about it then. I see no reason that something similar would not have happened in the UK. Of course, in 1941, this got flipped around again. Commented Jan 26, 2020 at 3:43
  • Ally (of necessity) perhaps, but I don’t think any western country considered the Soviet Union a ‘friend’ at the time. Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 19:59

The war simply serves one of the most important pillars of foundation of any dictatorship: a common external enemy and someone to blame for everything bad. To my knowledge, there has never existed a dictatorship that didn't name a culprit which they could use in their propaganda.

In the real world today, most dictators use USA or some rival nation as the culprit. But it could also be something like immigrants, cultural groups, rich people etc etc. That's how you undeniably notice that your country is slowly turning into a dictatorship: your president is suddenly blaming some specific group or nation for everything bad happening in their country.

As for 1984, it seems pretty clear that there is a real war going on - otherwise there would be no need for the Ministry of Truth to rewrite the propaganda and news about the war.

The reason for the war is explained in detail in the last chapters of the book. None of the 3 nations wants to win, status quo serves all of them, since they are all dictatorships. In addition, the war serves as "wag the dog" to keep the high ranked party members busy, stoking their patriotism and directing their energy towards the war effort rather than to scheme among themselves.

  • 8
    Blaming some "common enemy" is not limited to dictatorships. Even nations or parties claiming to be the most liberal do it all the time.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 7:16
  • 3
    Blaming the "common enemy" isn't even reserved to parties. Get people scared enough and they'd come up with a convenient target to focus their fear and anger. The "outsiders" are generally the first to go. Foreigners and even foreign threats. Look into any amount of mass hysteria cases, not the least of the infamous Salem witch trials. Which weren't even that big of a phenomena - they just got more coverage. Any witch hunts start from the fringes of society - newcomers, people who look unusual, people who act unusual, etc. So pointing at a "common enemy" is natural behaviour for groups.
    – VLAZ
    Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 8:35
  • 3
    The common enemy could even be an abstract concept, such as "drugs", or "terror".
    – Dronz
    Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 18:11

In reading 1984 we very quickly learn that the Party subjugated the people not as a means to a goal, but instead that this subjugation was the goal.

In the same manner, the Party did not suddenly change the Official Truth in order to protect its grip on power, but instead did this to validate that it still held that power. They wanted to see if the people's capacity to think independently was still crippled to the point that they would forget, on demand, everything that had been shouted to them in the months or even years leading up to that point.

Its has been observed that Winston (and, therefore, we) did not truly know whether any of the conditions outside of his direct experience were as he had been led to believe. For all he (and we) knew, Airstrip One could have been the only dictatorship on the planet, with the remainder of the world watching it in horrid disappointment.

In the same manner, while the Party may want to believe that it has the proles and Outer Party members habituated to uncritically accept what they are told to believe, it knows in its heart of hearts that it can never be 100% certain that any of the people really believes the propaganda. For all it knows, every single prole and Outer Party member could be going through the motions, waiting for the moment when it is safe to rebel.

The Party also officially claims to be the best thing that ever happened to the underclass, when in truth it knows, but can never admit, that the underclass can best serve its own interests by overthrowing the Party. (This is why a dictator is often so convinced that there are traitors among his people; overthrowing him is the smartest thing his people could do.)

These two facts combine to put the Party in chronic fear of overthrow.

Changing the official Party line from time to time is one way the Party deals with this fear. By switching the official story, the Party hopes to expose people who are only going through the motions. If everyone goes along, then things are going as they were; but if large groups of people call shenanigans, then the Party knows that its grip on power is weakening.

  • 3
    For me this is the most pertinent (and chilling) aspect: "They wanted to see if the people's capacity to think independently was still crippled to the point that they would forget, on demand, everything that had been shouted to them in the months or even years leading up to that point."
    – Franchesca
    Commented Jan 22, 2020 at 14:33
  • And the framing story indicates that the State did fall. The commentator is clearly living in a post-State world.
    – CarlF
    Commented Jan 22, 2020 at 17:30

"Why can't they just pretend to still be on Eastasia's side?" Presumably they're actively engaged in fighting Eastasia. Telling those involved in military operations (whether in the active military or supplying them from the home front) that they're on Eastasia's side, while also expecting them to bomb/invade Eastasia, would not create any less confusion, and wouldn't be any harder to spot as a lie.

  • 9
    It (deliberately) isn't clear that there is any actual war. Smith doesn't know anyone fighting, nor does he even know anyone who knows anyone fighting. The war is a media event for him and everyone around him.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 14:47
  • 3
    If I recall, it's not really even clear if Eastasia or Eurasia even exist. For all intents and purposes, they basically don't - the story takes place entirely in Oceania, and you never meet anyone from either of the other two countries. The point is that when literally all of your information comes from one source, you essentially have no choice but to take it at face value. Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 16:48
  • 6
    Not only do you not know whether Eastasia and Eurasia even exist, you don't even know that much about Oceania. It's said it's Airstrip One (Great Britain) plus North America and some others, but again you don't meet anyone from there either. At the most extreme, "Oceania" consists only of Great Britain as an utterly isolated outpost of totalitarianism, something like a more extreme version of North Korea, while the rest of the world is consists of liberal democracies. Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 17:36
  • 2
    @KeithMorrison You just blew my mind. Somehow I failed to grasp the possibility that the "rest of Oceania" might not actually be part of Oceania, and that Brits were simply told they were part of this greater whole (if for no other reason than to discourage any idea of rebellion that would surely be crushed by such a large entity). But once you laid it out that way, of course it's not only possible; it's probable. Commented Jan 21, 2020 at 17:58
  • @MontyHarder, that's part of the brilliance of the novel; when it comes down to it you, the reader, really know nothing more about what's really going on in the world than Smith and the proles do. It might have been unintentional on Orwell's part, but that's the effective result. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 16:29

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