Skip to comments.Homage to Catalonia and The Spanish Civil War
Posted on 05/27/2003 5:09:26 PM PDT by William McKinley
November 29, 1998
The History of Europe from 1715
Homage to Catalonia and The Spanish Civil War
In the 1952 novel, Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell relates his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 Orwell traveled to Spain to cover The Spanish Civil War for a British newspaper, but soon after he arrived he joined the P.O.U.M Militia and fought against Franciso Franco. The Spanish Civil War started when Franco, a Spanish general, led a revolt against the republican government. Franco, although not a fascist himself, was backed by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Spanish Church, Fascists in Spain, and large Spanish landowners. A group of leftist parties, know as the Popular Front, which included republicans, communists, socialists, Anarchists, and communist Russia formed a coalition against the Franco's army. Orwell, like Paul from All Quiet on the Western Front, was sent to the front, however Orwell had a much different experience. Unlike the well-trained killers, heavy casualties, and numerous artillery that Paul faced; Orwell describes the front as boring and full of poorly trained men with a lack of decent weapons. However, Orwell still endured the squalor and horrid conditions in trench warfare that Paul live in. During the course of the war Orwell discovers that the internal and international politics behind The Spanish Civil War are far more complicated that he first perceived.
The Spanish Civil war is more complex that than a simply a battle between fascists and republicans or socialists. First, the war might be described as a revolution rather than a civil war. The popular front is mostly made up leftist workers groups, which include the communists, socialists, and Anarchists, rather than republicans. These groups each had different agendas for Spain. The communists (P.S.U.C.), backed by Russia, wanted to set up a centralized communist government, like the one in Russia. The socialists (P.O.U.M) wanted to set up a worked controlled government with the influence of Russia. While the Anarchists (C.N.T.), also know as the Anarcho-syndicalists, wanted to establish a decentralized workers government. Likewise, Franco's collation was not completely unified. He was backed by rich landowners, which wanted to return to feudal Spain, Spanish Fascists, which wanted a Fascist Spain, and the military. In addition, international politics had considerable influence over the Spanish Civil War. Russia, who helped the Popular Front, had several reasons to intervene in the war. Orwell cynically asserts that Russia wanted to help maintain stability and the status quo in Spain because they were allies and had many treaties and alliances. Furthermore, Russia wanted to limit the power of Fascism in Europe. German and Italy backed Franco because they wanted to extent Fascist and authoritarian rule in Europe.
Orwell quickly leans the diverging ideologies of the many groups in the Popular Front have lead to serious tensions and even violent conflict. For example, while Orwell is on leave from the front in Barcelona riots erupt after the Comminutes storm the Anarchist run telephone company. During the next few days that follow there is bitter fight between groups that are supposedly on the same side. Communists, Socialists, and Anarchists, all members of the Popular Front, ware shooting at each other. As the war progress the divisions become more defined. By the end of the book, the P.O.U.M is declared illegal and Socialists and Anarchists are being rounded up and jailed. Luckily Orwell, with aid of British consulate, is able escape to France and eventually back to England.
In Homage to Catalonia Orwell the complexities of the internal and international politics involved in the Spanish Civil War. Both sides of the war, the Popular Front and army of Franco, were hardly unified. Within each group contained several smaller groups, each with their own ideologies and aims. To make maters more complicated there were several foreign countries also involved in the war. Russia, Italy and Germany were each involved, while England and France remained out of the war. Most likely they stayed out of the conflict because each country did not what to get involved in another war so soon after they experienced the horrors of WWI. This type of isolationism was inductive of England and France's policy of appeasement of Germany during the 1930s. Perhaps Orwell summed up the divisions of the Popular Front when he lamented, "'Why can't we drop all of this political nonsense and get on with the war?'" (Orwell 47).
The struggle of the Popular Front government reminds me of the struggle the Democratic Party is starting have. All the divergent interest groups are tearing apart potential Democrat candidates for silly reasons. NOW, the enviromentalists, reperation seekers and different ethnic groups are going to be fighting each other as Bush waltzes to a victory in 2004.
This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags ow with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workman. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Sen~or' or 'Don' ort even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' or 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers' State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed or voluntarily come over to the workers' side; I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being."There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." For all of Orwell's brilliance, he was capable of mind-bending blindness.
Together with all this there was something of the evil atmosphere of war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the shops were mostly shabby and half-empty. Meat was scarce and milk practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar and petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. #Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers' shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrase of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind, all about the proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.Some read these passages by Orwell, and don't realize that this was the leftist dream realized. This was as good as it gets.
And it wasn't that good.
Seriously, I recently read Homage to Catalonia as it was on P.J. Comix's Freeper reading list a few months back. We discussed the book on this thread.
Interesting stuff thought all that alphabet soup (acronyms of all the various factions) was very hard to keep up with. My head was spinning. However, fascinating account of what it was like in static trench warfare, something that the German blitzkrieg was about to do away with forever.
Speaking of the Freeper reading club, we are supposed to start discussion tonight of Babbitt, a Sinclair Lewis book.
You are right about how slanted most 'history' writing is, but I have found the writings on the Spanish Civil War to be particularly slanted, and surprisingly sparse.
Not to mention what he did for Spain's economy. A grossly misunderestimated individual.
The Russian wanted my friend to issue a charge order against emplaced Nazi-supplied machine guns. When my friend realized that it would be pure suicide to charge the position but the Russian kept screaming at him to obey the order. He told me he drew his revolver and shot the Russian dead. From then on he said he could not stand Russian commies and finally escaped to Mexico where he joined our American company and loved capitalism.