The Meaning of Sabotage

The typescript has a few amendments in Orwell’s hand and at the head of the first page, also in his hand, is written, ‘As broadcast. 10 mins 10 secs.’ The talk was censored by R. C. Hardman and read by Balraj Sahni.

Broadcast on the BBC’s Through Eastern Eyes programme on 29 January 1942:
Wanted for Sabotage - The Squanderbug alias Hitler's Pal

Wanted for Sabotage poster (UK)

Some time back I gave a talk on the scorched earth policy which plays such an important part in this war. The1 subject of sabotage arises naturally out of this. Sabotage is the tactic of a conquered people, just as scorched earth is the tactic of an army in retreat. But one understands better how it works if one knows something about its origins.

Everyone has heard the word sabotage. It is one of those words that find their way into all languages, but not all of the people who use it know where it comes from. It is really a French word. In parts of Northern France and Flanders the people, at any rate the peasants and working people, wear heavy wooden shoes which are called sabots. Once, many years ago, some working men who had a grievance against their employer threw their sabots into a piece of machinery while it was running, and thus damaged it. This action was nicknamed sabotage, and from then onwards the word came to be used for any action deliberately intended to interfere with industry or destroy valuable property.

The Nazis are now ruling over the greater part of Europe, and one can hardly open a newspaper without reading that in France, or Belgium, or Yugoslavia, or wherever it may be, several more people have been shot for committing sabotage. Now, one did not read these reports, or at any rate one did not read them in such2 numbers, at the beginning of the German occupation. They are a growth of the last year, and they have increased in numbers since Hitler attacked Soviet Russia. The increase of sabotage, and. still more, the seriousness with which the Germans regard it, tell one something about the nature of Nazi rule.

If you listen to German or Japanese propaganda you notice that a great deal of it is taken up with the demand for living space, or “lebensraum” as the Germans call it. The argument is always the same. Germany and Japan are crowded over-populated countries, and they want empty territories which their populations can colonise. These empty territories in the case of Germany are western Russia and the Ukraine, and in the case of Japan they are Manchuria and Australia. If you disregard the propaganda put out by the Fascists, however, and study what they have actually done, you find it is quite a different story. It seems that what the Fascist nations actually want is not empty spaces, but territories already thickly populated. The Japanese did indeed seize part of Manchuria in 1931, but they have not made serious attempts to colonise it, and soon afterwards they followed this aggression up by attacking and over-running the most thickly populated parts of China. At this moment, again, they are attacking and trying to over-run the very thickly populated islands of the Dutch East Indies. The Germans, similarly, have over-run and are holding in subjection the most thickly populated and highly industrialised parts of Europe.

In the sense in which the early settlers colonised America and Australia, it would be quite impossible for the Germans to colonise Belgium and Holland, or for the Japanese to colonise the valley of the Yang-tze-Kiang. There are far too many people there already. But of course, the Fascists have no wish to colonise in that sense. The cry for living-room is only a bluff. What they want is not land but slaves. They want control of large subject populations whom they can force to work for them at very low wages. The German picture of Europe is of two hundred million people all working from morning to night and turning over the products of their work to Germany, and getting in return just as much as will keep them from dying of starvation. The Japanese picture of Asia is similar. To some extent the German aims have already been achieved. But it is just here that the importance of sabotage comes in.

When those Belgium workmen flung their wooden sabots into the machinery, they showed their understanding of something that is not always recognised—the immense power and importance of the ordinary working man. The whole of society rests finally on the manual worker, who always has it in his power to throw it out of gear. It is no use for the Germans to hold the European peoples in subjection unless they can trust them to work. Only a few days of unchecked sabotage, and the whole German war machine would be at a standstill. A few blows from a sledge hammer, in the right place, can stop a power station working. One tug at the wrong signal lever can wreck a train. Quite a small charge of explosive can sink a ship. One box of matches, or one match, can destroy hundreds of tons of cattle fodder. Now, there is no doubt that acts of this kind are being carried out all over Europe, and in greater and greater numbers. The constant executions for sabotage, which the Germans themselves announce, show this clearly. All over Europe, from Norway to Greece, there are brave men who have grasped the nature of the German rule and are willing to risk their lives to overthrow it. To some extent this has been going on ever since Hitler came to power. During the Spanish civil war, for instance, it sometimes happened that a shell landed in the Republican lines and failed to explode, and when it was opened, sand or sawdust was found inside it instead of the explosive charge. Some worker in the German or Italian arms factories had risked his life so that at least one shell should not kill his comrades.

Hitler wants to know! (Careless talk poster, c. 1940)

Hitler wants to know! (UK, c. 1940)

But you cannot expect whole populations to risk their lives in this way, especially when they are being watched by the most efficient secret police in the world. The whole European working class, especially in the key industries, lives constantly under the eye of the Gestapo. Here, however, there comes in something which it is almost impossible for the Germans to prevent, and that is what is called passive sabotage. Even if you cannot or dare not wreck the machines, you can at least slow it down and prevent it from working smoothly. This is done by working as slowly and inefficiently as possible, by deliberately wasting time, by shamming illness, and by being as wasteful as possible with material. It is very difficult even for the Gestapo to fix responsibility for this kind of thing, and the effect is a constant friction which holds up the output of materials of war.

This brings out an essential fact: that anyone who consumes more material than he produces is in effect sabotaging the war machine. The worker who deliberately dawdles over his work is not only wasting his own time but other peoples’ as well. For he has got to be watched and driven, which means that other potential workers have to be taken away from productive employment. One of the chief features, one3 might say the distinctive feature, of Fascist rule, is the enormous number of police that it employs. All over Europe, in Germany and in the occupied countries, there are huge armies of police, SS-men, ordinary uniformed police, plain-clothed police and spies and provocateurs of all kinds. They are extremely efficient, and so long as Germany is not defeated in the field they can probably prevent any open revolt, but they represent an enormous diversion of labour, and their mere existence shows the nature of the Germans’ difficulties. At this moment, for instance, the Germans profess to be leading a European crusade against Soviet Russia. Yet they dare not raise large armies from the conquered European countries, because they could never trust them not to go over to the enemy. The entire number of the so-called allies of Germany, now fighting in Russia, is pitifully small. In the same way, they cannot really turn over the big business of armaments production to European countries outside Germany, because they are aware that the danger of sabotage exists everywhere. And even the danger can achieve a great deal. Every time a piece of machinery is wrecked or an ammunition dump mysteriously catches fire, precautions have to be redoubled lest the same thing should happen elsewhere. More investigations, more police, more spies are needed, and more people have to be diverted from productive work. If the Germans could really bring about the object they set themselves at the beginning—two hundred and fifty million Europeans, all united and working at full speed—it might perhaps be possible for them to outbuild Great Britain, the United States and Soviet Russia in munitions of war. But they cannot do so, because they cannot trust the conquered peoples and the danger of sabotage confronts them at every turn. When Hitler finally falls, the European workers who idled, shammed sickness, wasted material and damaged machinery in the factories, will have played an important part in his destruction.

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1.  war. The ] war, and the
2.  such ] anywhere near the same
3.  one ] we

Source: CW13-940

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