What Does That Quote Mean?

What George Orwell Meant by "Who Controls the Past Controls the Future"

Authorities Investigate Journalists Over Possible Treason
A protester holds a German translation of George Orwell's book '1984' as he demonstrates for journalists' rights on August 1, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Adam Berry / Getty Images News / Getty Images Europe

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."

Orwell's quote comes from his justifiably famous science fiction novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), which was written in 1949 and is today considered a classic, and widely read as an assignment in high schools and colleges everywhere. If you haven't read it or read it recently, 1984 is also available to be read for free on the Internet in several places, including George-Orwell.org.

1984: A Dystopia

In this novel of a dark and threatening future "Who controls the past controls the future" etc. is one of several of the ruling government's ("Big Brother") slogans. It reminds me, as Orwell intended it to, of the Nazi party in World War II Germany. The Nazis had a number of party slogans with which it dulled the minds of the people: if someone gives you a slogan to chant, you don't have to think about the implications. You just chant.

This specific quote of Orwell's has​ an additional sinister ring to it, suggesting that whoever writes the history books affects the way we view the world and the way we will function in the future. Furthermore, only those who release public information about the workings of government control what goes into the history books. That is a reflection of the situation in the mid-20th century: only governments and government-supported businesses had the money to publish textbooks and determine what was in them: textbooks were just about the only way a high school student could learn anything about the past.

Hooray for the Internet!

Twisting the German past to make their Third Reich sound inevitable is indeed something that the Nazi party explicitly did.

What Does it Mean to You?

But, that's just one take on the quote. I recommend you read 1984 to find out what it means for you.

And, in the end, I think that's really what I've always seen as the purpose of my archaeology quotation collection or any of quote collections I've read over the years: to pique our curiosity, force us to ask questions, and tempt us to read more of the larger work to get the answers for ourselves.