1984 Questions and Answers
by George Orwell

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What is the meaning of the quote beginning with "Who controls the past..."?

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marilynn07 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This is an interesting question. I am sure you have heard the phrase, "winners write the history."  Or Napoleon Bonaparte is accredited with saying, "History is a lie agreed upon."  As the previous answer states, history is rewritten by those who are in power.  Those who are in power control the media and therefore control the perception of who is right and who is the enemy.

If the persons in power can control what our views are regarding the past, they will then be able to control how the future unfolds as well based on their ability to control the media and the military.  Power is persuasive, and by using power effectively, people might be persuaded that their friend yesterday is now the enemy.

Some time in the past during the 1950s, our friend was the Shah of Iran, now Iran is considered to be an unfriendly power. As powers shift and change, alliances also shift and change.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The full quote is, "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." I believe that in addressing this question, you have to examine the issue of power.  The meaning of this statement is that someone can redefine who they are and, in fact, what a society is by being able to change the perception of how the past is configured.  For example, dictatorships are very passionate in the idea of "rewriting history."  You can see this in Milan Kundera's excellent book, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  We can also see this in history.  When Communist rule was at its zenith of power, governments were driven to recreating history in a manner that coordinated with the current government's goals.  In doing this (controlling the perception of the past), more credibility is given to the current, present day policies.  The Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia, after they wrestled power away from European control, declared a "Year Zero" where they made the argument that the past is the present.  By controlling the means of reading the past, they were able to fortify their control of the present.  This is also seen in the French Revolution.  After the French Monarchy was overthrown, they instituted a new view of history where the past was considered immoral and evil, lending greater credibility to the present.

I think you want to focus on the idea that people understand their present and future in how they conceptualize and comprehend the past.  If someone in the position of power can change how the past is viewed, they have a greater chance of controlling the present in that they are able to link the two together.

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archs52 | Student

As Les Visible says: "Control the perception of the past and you can guide the direction of the future in the mind of humanity as it tries to escape it or…. runs back to embrace it however you choose."

So if one controls the present day media, then they control the perception of history by writing the history that suits their purpose or agenda. Given that control, they can then manipulate future events. A little more elucidation on the matter from Les.

“When you control how things look, based on a manufactured presentation of what happened, you have an argument for government policies to follow into the future for your own benefit.”

This is exactly what the communist did with their media and once again, it is exactly what the American media is doing. The reason for this is that the same group of people are behind both systems. Find out the controlling people behind the Bolshevik revolution and you will be able to compare it with those who presently run the western media. Be sure to look for specific names of people and not just corporate entities. Once you know who runs such organs of power, then you will know who it is that controls your life and your future.