I have always found the Spanish Civil War confusing. After reading Homage to Catalonia
, I at least feel that I was justified in my confusion. On the surface, of course, it was a conflict between Franco’s Fascists and the democratic Republican government, but it was far more complicated than that. When Orwell arrived in Spain to fight on the Republican side with the P.O.U.M. militia, a P.S.U.C. position was pointed out to him and he was told “Those are the Socialists” to which he responded, “Aren’t we all Socialists?” He quickly learned that would be far too easy. Orwell does an admirable job of sorting out the alphabet soup of the anti-Fascist parties and militias - the P.S.U.C., C.N.T., F.A.I., P.O.U.M., U.G.T., etc., etc. The distinctions between the Anarchists, left-wing Communists, and right-wing Communists seem subtle, especially since the groups were supposedly united in their opposition to Franco, but they became critically important later. As Orwell learned, associating with the wrong party was a potentially lethal decision.
Orwell served in the P.O.U.M. (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) in 1937. He chose the party somewhat arbitrarily, based on connections he had through the British Independent Labour Party. Homage to Catalonia
is far from a comprehensive discussion of the Spanish Civil War. Orwell instead focuses on his personal experiences of fighting at the front (against the Fascists), and then on the May 1937 street fighting in Barcelona, when the various Republican groups fought each other. He vividly describes the experiences of war, with the cold, dirt, and lice, the inadequate weapons, and the idealistic but inexperienced soldiers, some of whom were children. With characteristic dryness, he recounts events such as being shot in the throat by a sniper, beginning, “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.” I would say so.
More interesting, however, is Orwell’s growing disillusionment with the politics of the war, a story he surely did not expect to have to tell when he set out to fight Fascism. He contrasts the atmosphere in Barcelona when he first arrived in Spain, when the workers were in control and he “breathed the air of equality,” with the oppressive environment of the police state that predominated just a few months later. The Soviet-backed P.S.U.C. pinned the May fighting in Barcelona on Orwell’s P.O.U.M., an excuse to suppress the P.O.U.M. and declare it illegal. The P.O.U.M. members were accused of being “Trotsky-Fascists,” which seems like an amusing oxymoron, but with it came the implication that they had secretly aided Franco. This was disastrous for the P.O.U.M. members, many of whom were thrown in jail for months on end without being charged of anything or allowed to stand trial. Many of them “disappeared,” including Andrés Nin, the leader of the P.O.U.M., who met a horrible end at the hands of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police).
Orwell’s commanding officer and friend Georges Kopp was imprisoned in terrible conditions. Orwell recounts a poignant story of frantically rushing around the city trying to convince the authorities to read a letter that would exonerate Kopp. His Spanish was shaky and his voice even weaker after the vocal cord paralysis he suffered from his neck wound. He also ran a very real risk of being arrested himself, simply by association with Kopp and the P.O.U.M. Orwell’s room was raided and all of his books and papers confiscated by the secret police. He and his wife only barely escaped from Spain themselves.
The Spanish Civil War was a microcosm of the conflict that was developing in Europe in the 1930s, a sort of testing ground for ideologies in preparation for World War II. Many foreigners came to fight, idealistically hoping to strike out against Fascism and to support a new government which seemed to represent the working people. Unfortunately, as Orwell came to find, other doctrines were tested as well, with the terrors of the totalitarian police state that came to dominate his later writing.