Come close to my clamour,
people fed from the same breast,
tree whose roots
keep me in prison,
because I am here to love you
and I am here to defend you
with my blood and with my mouth
as two faithful rifles.
— Sitting upon the Dead, Miguel Hernandez.
(An edited version of this essay appeared on mylaw.net)
The Spanish Civil War is a bellwether for humanities geeks. For most, it was just one more brutal event in a brutal decade: with things like the Holocaust and atomic bombs to report, how interesting are a bunch of anarchists running around trying to change the world? There are a smattering of those in every war. For us nerds, however, the war means much more: it was a harbinger, a prophecy, a betrayal. This was as true at the time it happened as it is now; which is why all the eccentrics and writers of the world were drawn to the battle like moths to a flame. It was a war in which, as Auden once wrote, poets exploded like bombs. Think back to any mid-century poet or journalist, and odds are they were annealed by fires across Spain. Orwell describes a very cosmopolitan Catalonia, brimming with Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, not to mention the Russians; Neruda, for that matter, made his way all the way from Chile. Spain, too, offered up her own literary sacrifices: Lorca, killed by Franco in Granada; Miguel Hernandez, lost to prison and pneumonia.
Orwell was amongst the first wave of these adventurists, and Homage to Catalonia is a bitter love-story about the country and the ideals he was determined to save. It begins in 1936, when Orwell first joined the POUM militia on the Aragon front, and closes in 1937, when he is running from Barcelona with the police, as he put it, one jump behind him. The story of how a soldier became a traitor is the story of Homage to Catalonia.
Unlike most Englishmen rushing off to Spain in the late ‘30a- say, Esmond Romilly, or Rupert John Conford, or, briefly, Eric Hobsbawm- Orwell was no reckless adolescent. He was published, married, well into his life, all of which he risked on the front for close to a year. By the time most journalists thought it might be worth their while to head into Spain- Martha Gellhorn, for instance, reached Madrid around the summer of ’37- Orwell was already a veteran; already, in fact, a fugitive. His perspective on the war both benefits and is hobbled by this early vantage- no later book will describe the infighting between the anarchists and the communists in as much detail, yet the bombing of Guernica finds no mention in his story.
The first part of the memoir is spent ruminating about the country and his comrades, amidst a dull, weary routine of foraging for firewood and scheming to stay awake in the freezing nights. War, it appears, is mostly in the anticipating.
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.. War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold and scrambling up and down over the jagged limestone that knocked one’s boots to pieces, pouncing eagerly on tiny twigs of wood.
Given the ragged state of the militia that Orwell describes- very few rifles, no ammunition, no candles, no boots or uniforms, little food- the relative calm seems serendipitous. In the summer months, we are told, there was fierce fighting in the area; however, this being rugged terrain, once the trenches had settled in, there was very little to be done. He describes the weird claustrophobia of trench warfare, where the enemy is too close for comfort, yet too far to hit:
The new sentries were no sooner in the trench than they began firing a terrific fusillade at nothing in particular. I could see the Fascists, tiny as ants, dodging to and fro behind their parapet, and sometimes a black dot which was someone’s head would pause for a moment, imprudently exposed…. They were simply remote black insects whom one occasionally saw hopping to and fro.
At first, he deplores the hopeless amateurs he is fighting alongside, especially considering the brutal professionalism of the other side. Franco’s Spanish Foreign Legion (at the core of the military rebellion that began the civil war) are hardy, longtime soldiers; Goliath, as it were, facing off against an army of Davids armed quite literally with slingshots: “There were nights when it seemed to me our position could be stormed by twenty Boy Scouts armed with air-guns, or twenty Girl Guides armed with battledores, for that matter”. Over the course of his time at the front, however, he comes to appreciate the revolution the militias have initiated in army discipline, especially in contrast to the brutal treatment meted out by the Fascists to their own as much as to others. In yet another first for this war, the Popular Army that replaced the militia system in 1937 was a midway between the two types- though, of course, Orwell could not have known this would be the prototype of the postmodern armed forces: voluntary in theory, conscripted in practice.
Considering the contrasting approaches across the jagged front, he writes:
They had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of a classless society. Of course there was not perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or than I would’ve thought conceivable in time of war…. the newly raised draft of militia was an undisciplined mob not only because the officers called the privates “comrade” but because raw troops are always an undisciplined mob. In practice, the democratic ‘revolutionary’ type of discipline is more reliable than might be expected. In a workers’ army discipline is theoretically voluntary. It depends on class-loyalty, whereas the discipline of a bourgeois conscript army is based ultimately on fear. Revolutionary discipline depends on political consciousness- on an understanding of why orders must be obeyed, it takes time to diffuse this, but it also takes time to drill a man into an automaton on the barrack-square.
After long stretches describing the long tedium of the war, the lack of cigarettes, and sundry observations about the changing political scenario in Republican Spain, Orwell is suddenly thrown into action. The Government, he tells us, has finally “produced a decent bomb.” The militia, long unused to the concept of ammunition, are enthused by the sudden influx of weapons and plan an offensive down the line. Orwell’s redoubt is called upon for volunteers, and off he goes to try kill the Fascists.
He describes his first, and only, attempt at killing the enemy with a typical combination of detail and dry wit:
If I had fired I could’ve blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leap backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out of reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little while, we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there- a comic memory for me to look back upon- though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. Of course, he knew the ground better than me and soon slipped away.
The whole thing plays out like a comic opera. Orwell and fellow troopers storm the Fascist post, kill a few people and almost steal a telescope, and then are killed in turn and retreat. The whole point, we are told, was to make sure that the Fascists couldn’t divert troops to a bigger offensive down the line; in the logic of war, the night was considered a well played tactic. Orwell, on the other hand, concludes his recounting of the absurd night regretting the abandoned telescope.
The kind of war Orwell describes appears anachronistic in our age of martial megatrons: the primary weapons of the early Spanish war were bayonets and machetes. It was in the Spanish war, nonetheless, that the defining civilian experience of war changed from that of privation and disease (with the harrowing fear of slaughter should their side lose) to one of destroyed cities and poisoned air. It was the Spanish war that erased the innocent from the annals of history: in modern war, anyone’s game. This is a side of war Orwell is singularly silent about, being himself a soldier; bombing campaigns inevitably target cities and productive populations, not chaotic front-lines where it is hard to tell ally from enemy. Martha Gellhorn, observing the war in Madrid, wrote what is likely one of the first accounts of a bombed-out shell-city; “the shadows”, she writes, “crawled over chaos”. In our time, the sceptre of charred landscapes resides at the tip of our collective memory- images from pitted Sarajevo compete with the napalm-burned jungles of Vietnam- to the point where further description seems close to obscene. At the time, however, Guernica set Europe aflame with horror, yet another symbol in this concertedly significant war.
And you forget them at your peril
For though you fight as well as they
You’ll be betrayed, as we were.
David Marshall, I lived in a time of heroes.
Everytime Stalin swaps partners, Marxism has to be hammered into a new shape.
— George Orwell, Inside the Whale.
The quintessential experience of modern war- bombing- was perfected by the Luftwaffe over Spain; tens of thousands of bombs were dropped on every major city: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga and, of course, Guernica, where the Basques convened under the holy oak. It was, as Sven Lindqvist points out in A History of Bombing, a symbol waiting to happen, given the savage precedent set by colonial wars of earlier decades. For the bomb had already been used, extensively, across Africa and Asia by assorted European ‘great powers’; it was only a matter of time before the weakest link within the metropolis would be targeted.
Franco was the last to leave Chechaouen (in “Spanish” Morocco) in 1924 and the first to return in 1926 when France had won the war for Spain. He never forgot Chechaouen. It was there that the taboo against calling in the air force of a foreign land to bomb one’s own territory was first broken- and the taboo against bombing a city full of defenceless civilians. Chechaouen laid the foundation for Guernica.
Throughout the interwar years, the fear in Europe grew- the fear of a new kind of war, a war that would suddenly strike like lightning from a clear sky at peaceful, unarmed people….Guernica gave a name to that fear… The destruction of Guernica made such a huge impression because it was precisely what everyone was waiting for… The painting was hung in Paris while the air in Guernica was still acrid with smoke… Chechaouen had no Picasso. There was not even a camera there to record the destruction. Among the tens of thousands of documents collected by Ali Raisuni, there is not one single image of Chechaouen after the bombing.
If Orwell has nothing to say about this innovation made to the practice of war, he has plenty to say regarding the other contribution the Spanish made to 20th century world-history: the blueprint for every betrayed revolution. One of the worst kept secrets of revolutions is their hopeless factionalism: hardly do the suborned masses capture the castle, it appears, that they begin self-stratifying. One of the better kept secrets about revolutions is that while the circumstances may distort terms within the debate, the hoary political distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ remains intact.
In every revolution, the hidden power-play has been between the left and the right within the revolutionary forces, only later to be exploited by authoritarian forces seeking to squish the revolt wholesale. Imagine a revolution to be the siege of a city that can only be taken down from inside, and inevitably is, if only the army outside can hold out for long enough. In 18th century France, the Jacobins, far to the left of most, won the internal battle; till Thermidor claimed Robespierre’s head. In Russia, Lenin’s left-wing Bolsheviks prevailed against the gentler Mensheviks. Later, in a reversal, Stalin kicked Trotsky out; partially why Russian socialism swirled around ‘Marxism’ in such a demented ballet.
In Spain, following this pattern, the war and attendant revolution devolved into a twisted menage a trois: anti-Fascists tussling amidst themselves, with orthodox Communism at the extreme-right end of the spectrum. As Orwell notes, the Comintern was obsessed with Russian survival by the late ‘30s, and that depended on Russian military alliances with liberal (and, later, fascist) Europe. Having had their hopes dashed by the ill-fated German revolution of the ‘20s, and alarmed by the rise of Hitler as a symptom of the failure of world-revolution, the Comintern was no longer interested in the ‘wheels of the world revolution’ that Trotsky wanted to set into motion. Stalin’s Russia retreated into a “socialism in one country” formula, whether for preservation or for purification we will never know, and global socialism has never recovered from that taint. The global policy of Soviet Russia, at any event, was containment and preservation, not expansion or solidarity.
This policy-shift impacted Communist movements worldwide- Indian communists not least- with the consequence that global communism spend much of the ‘30s behaving like an eccentric pendulum, swinging upon the drift of Russian foreign policy. The Russians, for their part, used their status as the primary arms-dealer to the Republican government much like Hitler and Mussolini used their connections to Franco: to introduce conformity in Spain for a greater geopolitical cause. Spain, was, in every sense of the word, an experiment: a petri-dish breeding scuppered revolution, modern war, and postmodern political theory.
At the beginning of the war, the working classes and unions defended the cities and countryside against Franco’s revolt to restore the monarchy (which had fallen in 1931 to popular unrest). In spring and summer 1936, during the fiercest fighting, a quiet revolution conducted itself across vast swathes of the Republic. Land and production were collectivised, militias organised, and both the Central and the Catalan government, Orwell argues, “could be said to represent the working class”. Power was shared by the CNT (Anarcho-Syndicalist trade unions), the UGT (socialist trade unions), and the government was headed by Caballero, a left-wing socialist.
Slowly, however, the coalition was purged from within; ‘syndicalist’ unions like CNT and ‘trotskyist’ militias like POUM were phased out in favour of more reliable ‘Stalinist’ forces. In May, the fragile Catalan government was shattered, Barcelona erupted in riots, and the anarchists‘ long expulsion gathered momentum. One year into the war and the revolution, the government consisted primarily of liberals and right-wing Socialists who served Russian ambitions more than Spanish ones. In six months, Catalonia went from revolutionary government to a liberal one: Lenin’s October revolution in mirror- inverse. The consequences of this shift upon the war effort were both enduring and dramatic, as Orwell notes:
One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the right… I grasped that the Communists and the Liberals had set their face against allowing the revolution to go forward. I did not grasp they might be capable of setting it back… There is very little doubt that arms were held back lest they should get into the hands of the anarchists, who would afterwards use them to revolutionary purpose; consequently the big Aragon offensive, which would have made Franco draw back from Bilbao, and possibly from Madrid never happened. But this was comparatively a small matter. What was more important was that once the war had been narrowed down to a ‘war for democracy’, it became impossible to make any large-scale appeal for working-class aid abroad…
Since the 1914-1918 ‘war for democracy’ has had a sinister sound. For years past the Communists themselves had been teaching the militant workers in all countries that ‘democracy’ was a polite name for Capitalism. To say first “Democracy is a swindle!” and then “Fight for Democracy!” is not good tactics. If, with the huge prestige of Soviet Russia behind them, they had appealed to the workers of the world in the name not of democratic Spain but of revolutionary Spain, it is hard to believe they wouldn’t have got a response…
What clinches everything is the case of Morocco. Why was there no rising in Morocco? Franco was trying to set up an infamous dictatorship, and the Moors actually preferred him to the Popular Front Government! The palpable truth is no attempt was made to foment a rising in Morocco, because to do so would have meant putting a revolutionary construction on the war. The first necessity, to convince the Moors of the Government’s good faith, would have been to proclaim Morocco liberated. And we can imagine how pleased France would have been with that! The best strategic opportunity of the war was flung away in the vain hope of placating French and British capitalism”
Orwell, by happenstance, was actually in Barcelona when the fighting between the POUM and PSUC, anarchists and communists, exploded. In the weeks prior, the tensions between the CNT and the UGT had escalated, and finally the city rioted, caught between the Civil Guards and the various militias. Orwell was recovering from an injury as he met with his wife in the city, and had requested a transfer to the International Brigade, stationed in Madrid. In the meanwhile, waiting for a pair of boots (‘the kind of detail that is always deciding one’s destiny’), he got caught up in the Barcelona fighting as a partisan for POUM. Three days after the fighting ceased, he was back at the front, still fighting along the anarchist line (he declined to join the PSUC-affiliated International Brigade after his Barcelona experience). “If we could drive Franco and his foreign mercenaries into the sea”, he writes in his journal, “it might make an immense improvement in the world situation, even if Spain itself emerged with a stifling dictatorship and all its best men in jail’.
While he was off at the front, however, conditions for POUM worsened, helped along by a largely PSUC-partisan press which painted the syndicalists to be fascist fifth columns who had engineered the riots to weaken Barcelona and soften it for Franco. POUM veterans were harassed and imprisoned, which proved disastrous for the scores of foreigners affiliated with it, especially the Italian and German fugitives who faced deportation back to their own country. Bob Smillie, who had served on the front even longer Orwell, disappears into prison on his way back to England; Georges Kopp, a Belgian and Orwell’s onetime CO, is arrested on his way to a promotion. By late June, Orwell himself is injured again, this time so badly that he is declared unfit for further combat.
As usual, he writes of the horror of a bullet-wound with calm detachment:
The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and worth describing in detail… Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion…Not being in pain, I felt a vague satisfaction. This ought to please my wife, I thought; she always wanted me to be wounded, which would save me from being killed when the great battle came.
Back in the city after his hospitalisation, he describes the change in Barcelona’s once-jolly and brave camaraderie with wrenching and wretched disappointment: “No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food-queues, and prowling gangs of armed men… It was as though some huge evil intelligence was brooding over the town “. The evil intelligence is soon alerted to his presence in the town, and Orwell skips out of Spain with the police hot on his trail, after a few days spent playing hobo on Barcelona’s streets.
The war, of course, went on long after Orwell left; and the Republic, despite all the sniping, put up a brave, honourable front. In September 1938, the International Brigade was withdrawn from the fronts by the Spanish government, following a volley of diplomatic chatter about “intervention” and its pitfalls from the liberal left. By this time, the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact was less than a year away, and arguably Russia had overplayed it’s hand in Spain, festering understandable resentment amongst its leaders (the Brigade was communist, almost to the man). One of many open questions about the war is what might’ve happened if the thousands-strong International Brigade, so valorised in song and memory, was allowed to stick around to repel Franco’s overwhelming Italian and German support. Be that as it may, the turn of events served to accelerate away from Orwell’s brave brethren at POUM, and history has recorded them as cowards, fools, or traitors. Even the otherwise impeccable Hobsbawm fell prey to the fallacy; he spends a goodly portion of Revolutionaries excoriating Spanish anarchism. Belying Orwell’s experience, he argues that Spanish anarchism was simply too haphazard, and, well, anarchic to fight a war; further, that it made the mystifying error of not attempting to change the style of ‘primitive Spanish revolt’. The communists, he suggests, had the only rational policy to achieve these fine goals, which explains why they prevailed while anarchists foundered (though he is much too fine a scholar to fall for the party-line blather about the Fascist fifth column cunningly hidden behind POUM).
Homage to Catalonia’s final chapters, written in England in late 1937, are full of denunciations of the demonisation of POUM and the developing ‘Left’ orthodoxy coalescing around the Republican government’s altered history of the war. Dumbfounded to the point of incoherence, Orwell piles invective upon insult; he is desperate to give history an account of the ‘real war’ to stand against the Republic’s blatant hypocrisy. He points out the irony of a government planning elaborate schemes of disinformation and censorship even as it denounces libellous fascist propaganda about ‘red atrocities’ (such as Franco’s famous thesis that Guernica’s denizens burned down their own town); he shudders at the prospect of heresy-hunters in a land once transformed by freedom; he balks at the choice between alternate tyrannies. Orwell distilled his fury and bewilderment from these chapters in his 1942 essay Looking Back on the Spanish War:
Early in life I had noticed that no event was is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I aw newspaper reports which did not bear any relationship to the facts, not even the relation implied by an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as heroes of the imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened… This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate, similar lies, will pass into history… I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.