Fact Check: About Claims That Orwell Talked of 'Destroying People' by 'Denying and Obliterating' Their History

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Dystopian novelist George Orwell once wrote or said, "The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history."


Rating: Misattributed
Rating: Misattributed

English writer George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, was born in India at the turn of the 20th Century and went on to write commentary on the threat of totalitarianism, democratic socialism, and anti-imperialism in the form of dystopian novels. As a kind of prophetic poster child of dystopia – the term "Orwellian" literally refers to the totalitarian future he wrote of in his book "1984" – quotes on dystopian themes have often been incorrectly attributed to him.

One such quote gained particular traction on multiple social media platforms over the years: "The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history."


We reached out to the Orwell Society and received the following response from Benedict Cooper, the society's publicity officer:

I've searched for this phrase in the digitised Orwell library and can't find it. And from what I can see online this has been previously questioned and found to not be backed up with any sources from Orwell, so I would conclude that it is not a real Orwell quote.

As with so many of these misquotes/misattributions, it chimes with much of Orwell's thinking — the sentiment is echoed in his writing. In Nineteen Eighty-Four of course he does describe in length how the party alters history and destroys aspects of historical record that do not suit its present power base. But there's no evidence he actually wrote this, and I'll add that language of this phrase doesn't sound Orwellian to me.

The Orwell Society's secretary designate, Chris Harrison, also responded, saying:

This statement is often attributed to Orwell in internet articles but never with any reference to a specific source. We are not aware of it being an authentic Orwell quote. It does roughly correspond to one of the messages in 1984 but is certainly not a direct quote.

We searched a PDF version of "1984," which the quote is often attributed to, and did not find it. Often quotes like this mysteriously appear on the internet and are shared so many times it becomes nearly impossible to trace where exactly they originated. As far as we can determine, Orwell didn't utter the statement.

In "1984," however, messages about the destruction of peoples' history that Cooper and Harrison alluded to can be found. It's possible the following passage from "1984" inspired the quote in question:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

In sum, Orwell did not write or say: "The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history." However, the sentiment of the quote appears in many messages in Orwell's "1984."

We previously reported on another misattributed Orwell quote: "The further a society drifts from the truth, the more they will hate those that speak it."


David Barton Uses Dubious George Orwell Quote – Warren Throckmorton. 10 Aug. 2017, https://wthrockmorton.com/2017/08/10/dubious-george-orwell-quote/.

'Home'. The Orwell Society, https://orwellsociety.com. Accessed 17 June 2024.

MacGuill, Dan. 'Did George Orwell Say This About Societies That "Drift From the Truth"?' Snopes, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.snopes.com//fact-check/george-orwell-drift-from-truth/.

Nige. 'Nigeness: As Orwell Didn't Say...' Nigeness, 25 Aug. 2017, https://nigeness.blogspot.com/2017/08/as-orwell-didnt-say.html.