In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, the confessions and executions depicted are designed to closely resemble the confessions and executions that occurred under Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, especially in the mid-to-late 1930s. Stalin staged “show trials” in which distrusted persons were expected to confess to crimes they might never have actually committed. Those who confessed were then either imprisoned or, often, executed.
Many people confessed in order to avoid torture; others confessed because of threats against their families (such as their wives and children); some even confessed because they sincerely believed that Stalin could not be wrong. If the Soviet state had accused them of crimes, then the accusations must be correct. These show trials were just one of many indications that the dream of communism in the Soviet Union had by now turned into a kind of nightmare. Orwell, in his novel, is careful to emphasize this aspect of Stalin’s tyranny.
After a number of animals confess to various crimes and are immediately killed by Napoleon’s dogs, even more confessions and executions occur:
The three hens who had been the ringleaders in the attempted rebellion over the eggs now came forward and stated that Snowball [the counterpart of Leon Trotsky] had appeared to them in a dream and incited them to disobey Napoleon's orders. They, too, were slaughtered. Then a goose came forward and confessed to having secreted six ears of corn during the last year's harvest and eaten them in the night. Then a sheep confessed to having urinated in the drinking pool -- urged to do this, so she said, by Snowball -- and two other sheep confessed to having murdered an old ram, an especially devoted follower of Napoleon, by chasing him round and round a bonfire when he was suff ering from a cough. They were all slain on the spot. And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon's feet and the air was heavy with the smell of blood . . .
The confessions and executions serve many of the same functions they served in Stalinist Russia, including the following:
- They create enormous fear, intimidation, and paranoia, even among those who are guilty of nothing.
- They make rebellion far less likely by demonstrating to any potential rebels the consequences that they will suffer if they are even suspected of rebellious tendencies.
- They eliminate any potential ringleaders of any potential rebellion.
- They help the regime in power to taint the reputations of any potential enemies, especially the reputation of Snowball, who poses a real potential threat to Napoleon’s rule.
- They demonstrate the ruthlessness of the new regime. If farmer Jones had used such methods, he might still be in charge of his farm. Secret police and rigged trials did, of course, exist during the rules of the Czars, but the final Czar – Nicholas II – was a rank amateur as a tyrant when compared to Joseph Stalin.