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I just read through Orwell's short essay, What is Fascism? In it, Orwell defines fascism (or doesn't) with two sentences:

Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make.

This essay was published in 1944. So we know that issues of modern politics, particularly those surrounding the state of the world at the time of WWII, seems to have (unsurprisingly) been on Orwell's mind for some time before he wrote the book. 1984 was published in 1949, five years after the writing of this essay.

Did Orwell ever talk about what, specifically, motivated him to go from pondering on fascism to writing the actual book?

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    Orwell wrote Animal Farm before 1984, so this kind of material had been on his mind for some time. He also fought in the Spanish Civil war and saw a lot of propaganda, misuse of language and brutal behavior. In looking at Orwell's life, it seems, for me at least, that 1984 is the culmination of a life's involvement with political questions. – michael_timofeev Jan 25 '17 at 11:22
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    I am not sure enough, but some people in Czech Republic believe he was inspired by communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948. – Pavel Janicek Jan 25 '17 at 19:00
  • Vaguely related literature.stackexchange.com/questions/3661/… – Matt Thrower Jan 2 '18 at 9:56
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George Orwell feared totalitarianism. He wanted to fight it and the book reads as a (dire) warning. There is at least one letter by his hand that goes into this in detail.

"I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase."

He saw nationalistic initiatives being on the rise due to the pressures and atrocities of WW2 and while he was confident Hitler would go, and soon too, he feared that even fighting fascism would lead to the waning and eventual end of truth and democracy.

"But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it."

References:
http://www.openculture.com/2014/01/george-orwell-explains-in-a-revealing-1944-letter-why-hed-write-1984.html
http://mentalfloss.com/article/64492/we-novel-inspired-george-orwells-1984
George Orwell: A Life in Letters 1st Edition, Kindle Edition,ISBN-13: 978-0871404626

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I'll offer a no doubt idiosyncratic, personal and possibly controversial opinion on the topic given in your title - "Do we know what prompted Orwell to write 1984?". The question contained in the body of your question is slightly different:

Did Orwell ever talk about what, specifically, motivated him to go from pondering on fascism to writing the actual book?

Of course Orwell talked about his motivations for writing the book, but I'll try to be a bit more general than quoting him directly on those reasons.

I've been reading Orwell off and on my whole life. I grew up in Bombay, India. When I was around 12 or 13, a young visiting English teacher to our school read us the first chapter of "Animal Farm". I had never heard of it before. A bit later, I might have been 15 then, I borrowed and read 1984 from the school library. I remember that it really spoke to me. A bit after that I found copies of the Collected Journalism, Essays, and Letters from a local library and read and re-read them for a while.

Orwell was a prolific essayist and journalist. He also wrote a lot of letters. One can read statements about why he wrote 1984, but it's more interesting to attempt to trace his thoughts.

To put it in a nutshell, Orwell seems to have become convinced, over a period of about 15 years or so, starting in the early 30s, that totalitarianism and totalitarian leaders, which included the examples of his contemporaries Franco, Hitler and Stalin, posed a special and possibly existential threat to the human species. He also seems to not have been so much concerned with totalitarianism's directly destructive potential, despite horrible examples like the Nazis, so much as what they might do to human society. In other words, his concerns appear to have been at least partly humanistic.

Not only that, he seems to have felt there was far too much cultural acquiescence to totalitarian thinking among people at large, and not enough awareness of the dangers. His writings directly on the subject started in the mid 30s and increased in volume as time went on, with such themes eventually playing a dominant role.

Orwell's major writing is available online, some of it is out of copyright in Australia, and so is available on Project Gutenberg Australia, so it's easy to look through them and see these concerns taking shape.

His interest in this really seems to have started during the Spanish Civil War. As most people reading this doubtless know, Orwell fought briefly in the Spanish Civil War in an anti-fascist outfit called POUM and was wounded. He wrote a famous book about it called "Homage to Catalonia".

After that, his interest seems to have continued and increased as he thought and wrote about similar totalitarian phenomena like the Nazis and the Bolshevik/Communist Party.

A fairly detailed and explicit discussion of all this is in his essay: "Why I write" (1946), which includes the well-known passage:

The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

There is also a revealing bit of dialog in the 1939 novel "Coming Up for Air", which is full of references to Hitler and Stalin.

'I think you've got it wrong. Old Hitler's something different. So's Joe Stalin. They aren't like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it. They're after something quite new--something that's never been heard of before.'

'My dear fellow! There is nothing new under the sun.'

The first quote is from Bowling, the protagonist. The response is from his friend, a school teacher named Porteous.

It seems that Orwell himself thought that Hitler and Stalin were "after something quite new".

Reading between the lines, Orwell decided in the 1940s to use a novel as a more effective vehicle to transmit his ideas and thoughts about totalitarianism to a wider audience. That novel was 1984.

If you will forgive some editorializing, it's interesting to note what Orwell did not consider to be a particular danger or problem. Specifically, standard Western Imperialism. Though he grew up during the British Empire, and even served as a British Imperial Policeman in Burma (and wrote a novel set there), he seems to have mostly tended to make excuses for it. For example, a random example from http://www.openculture.com/2014/01/george-orwell-explains-in-a-revealing-1944-letter-why-hed-write-1984.html (borrowed from Bookeater's answer above):

I know enough of British imperialism not to like it, but I would support it against Nazism or Japanese imperialism, as the lesser evil.

So he didn't "like" British imperialism but would "support" it. This is despite the truly impressive crimes and destruction committed by the British and their cousin the United States. And people like Hitler having acknowledged their indebtedness to Britain and US policies as having "shown the way". But this is in keeping with general British attitudes on the matter, which, even in the 21st century, remain largely unchanged. And it's certainly true that Britain and the United States have never been totalitarian internally.

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He read That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis. He responded, "This could actually happen." He wrote 1984, his own version with Lewis's religious themes removed. Incidentally, THS is the superior book.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • If true, this is very interesting indeed and I'd love to read more about it. Unfortunately, you haven't provided any supporting evidence. Please could you add some backup to this answer, e.g. evidence that Orwell read THS or a source for the quote "This could actually happen"? – Rand al'Thor Jan 30 '18 at 10:50
  • OK, I found a couple of really interesting sources (thanks for inspiring me with this answer!!): Orwell's review of That Hideous Strength and an article entitled "That Hideous 1984: The Influence of C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four". Please feel free to add links/arguments from these into your answer :-) – Rand al'Thor Jan 30 '18 at 18:01
  • My pleasure. My answers don't seem very popular otherwise. – Friejek Jan 31 '18 at 1:26
  • This site generally frowns on unsupported answers. As it stands, people can't tell without further research whether what you claim here is correct or not. If you edit in some supporting evidence and/or discussion from the links I mentioned above, I can almost guarantee that the votes on this answer will turn around and go positive. – Rand al'Thor Jan 31 '18 at 1:31
  • Thank you. I will do so in the future! – Friejek Jan 31 '18 at 1:43

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