The Spanish Civil War was a confusing war. On one side you had the Republic, represented by a hodge-podge of leftist unions and political groups, and on the other side you had the fascists, represented by General Franco, the Catholic church, and bourgeoisie elements.
The Republic (referred to as the “government”) had help from thousands of foreign volunteers who poured into Spain to defeat the fascists, which were supported by Hitler and Mussolini. George Orwell was one of those volunteers. What started as an idealistic campaign for socialism ended with him rushing to escape the country, not from the fascists but the socialists.
We were getting near the front line now, near the bombs, the machine-guns and the mud. In secret I was frightened. I knew the line was quiet at present, but unlike most of the men about me I was old enough to remember the Great War, though not old enough to have fought in it. War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops. I admit, too, that I felt a kind of horror as I looked at the people I was marching among.
The essential point of the system was social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. It was understood that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior.
Orwell gave details of fighting in a war so cash-poor war that even bullets had to be rationed. Discipline in such conditions, where homemade grenades were fastened with tape instead of pins, was preserved because of desire to defeat Franco. The destiny of the Spanish people was at stake.
You broke the tape and then got rid of the bomb with the utmost possible speed. It was said of these bombs that they were ‘impartial’; they killed the man they were thrown at and the man who threw them.
The Fascist guns were of the same make and calibre as our own, and the unexploded shells were often reconditioned and fired back. There was said to be one old shell with a nickname of its own which travelled daily to and fro, never exploding. At night small patrols used
One evening when it was barely even dusk a sentry let fly at me from a distance of twenty yards; but he missed me by a yard— goodness knows how many times the Spanish standard of marksmanship has saved my life.
Georges Kopp, on his periodical tours of inspection, was quite frank with us. “This is not a war,” he used to say, “it is a comic opera with an occasional death.” As a matter of fact the stagnation on the Aragon front had political causes of which I knew nothing at that time; but the purely military difficulties— quite apart from the lack of reserves of men— were obvious to anybody.
There seemed no hope of any real fighting. When we left Monte Pocero I had counted my cartridges and found that in nearly three weeks I had fired just three shots at the enemy. They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist.
You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire— not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.
While Orwell gives a background on the political action, it doesn’t come until the middle of the book. Therefore it’s helpful for you to know that the historical story begins when General Franco attempted a coup with support of the church and nationalistic factions against the leftist government. This caused a spontaneous uprising among anarchists, socialists, and communists centered in Barcelona. The Western media, especially in England, portrayed the war as fascism vs democracy, but the left in Spain believed it to be their workers revolution. They confiscated land, collectivized factories, and set up revolutionary communities.
The Soviets came to help the government, but really they came to help themselves. They wanted Spain to be a reliable Soviet ally for its defense. Instead of helping the workers, they consolidated power, imprisoning and killing many who were fighting against Franco. The Western media did not want to admit their aid to the “democratic” government was actually helping Stalin create a Soviet puppet state.
By supplying arms and airplanes, Stalin was able to dictate terms. He wanted to prevent a full-blown revolution so that control could be maintained and he could slide into a functioning government apparatus, since revolutions are unstable and hard to manage.
The thing for which the Communists were working was not to postpone the Spanish revolution till a more suitable time, but to make sure that it never happened. This became more and more obvious as time went on, as power was twisted more and more out of working-class hands, and as more and more revolutionaries of every shade were flung into jail.
The whole of Comintern policy is now subordinated (excusably, considering the world situation) to the defence of U.S.S.R., which depends upon a system of military alliances. In particular, the U.S.S.R. is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary. This means not only that French Communists now march behind the tricolour and sing the Marseillaise, but, what is more important, that they have had to drop all effective agitation in the French colonies.
Stalin needed allies to preserve his power, and didn’t care whether those allies were communist or not. In Spain, he used his propaganda machine to denigrate other political parties that were also fighting against Franco.
One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.
At the same time the government was fighting Franco, it was also fighting itself to consolidate its power into a Soviet-approved system. But since we know that Franco eventually won, it turns out that Stalin subverted the will of the Spanish people through his meddling and let them be overcome by a dictatorship that lasted nearly four decades.
There was a dreadful moment when I kicked against a tin and thought every Fascist within miles must have heard it. But no, not a sound, no answering shot, no movement in the Fascist lines. We crept onwards, always more slowly. I cannot convey to you the depth of my desire to get there. Just to get within bombing distance before they heard us! At such a time you have not even any fear, only a tremendous hopeless longing to get over the intervening ground. I have felt exactly the same thing when stalking a wild animal; the same agonized desire to get within range, the same dreamlike certainty that it is impossible.
When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like an historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away. What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but simply the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable roof, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse— for none of us had had a proper meal since Monday. It was in my mind all the while that I should have to go back to the front as soon as this business was over.
The fact is that every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.
There was one man wounded in the face and throat who had his head inside a sort of spherical helmet of butter-muslin; his mouth was closed up and he breathed through a little tube that was fixed between his lips. Poor devil, he looked so lonely, wandering to and fro, looking at you through his muslin cage and unable to speak.
I wonder what is the appropriate first action when you come from a country at war and set foot on peaceful soil. Mine was to rush to the tobacco-kiosk and buy as many cigars and cigarettes as I could stuff into my pockets. Then we all went to the buffet and had a cup of tea, the first tea with fresh milk in it that we had had for many months. It was several days before I could get used to the idea that you could buy cigarettes whenever you wanted them. I always half-expected to see the tobacconists’ doors barred and the forbidding notice ‘No hay tobaco’ in the window.
Orwell didn’t leave the war unscathed: he was shot through the neck and had his vocal cords and right hand permanently damaged. He arrived as an idealistic socialist soldier but left a man jaded by the Soviet style of communism, determined to let the world know what a true danger it was. If you like Orwell and want to learn more about the Spanish Civil War, this book is for you.
Read More: “Homage To Catalonia” on Amazon