An unstable Europe, led by an unelected totalitarianism regime, is divided, facing an uncertain future with opposing fundamental ideologies, without a clear roadmap for moving forward. A fitting post-Brexit statement, proving the essence of history repeats itself, but one that sums up the 1930s world that George Orwell found himself.
Animal Farm is the best political allegory ever written. Nineteen Eighty-Four, his final novel, is almost prophetic. So what were the real life experiences that motivated him? Homage to Catalonia offers some insight into this, serving as a tool for him to recount his time in the Spanish Civil War.
If one is tempted to read this book for an exploration into intense battlefield activities, then it will not sate that appetite. There are rare occasions Orwell describes running the enemy line and taking ground, but as he explains early on, from his first-hand experience, war is mainly boring.
That’s not to say the young Orwell was eager to avoid conflict; his apparent bloodlust to kill a fascist may shock some. But that particular title for the enemy has taken on different ramifications over the years. Say “Nazi” and “Fascist” today, and two different responses will be evoked. To the Orwell of 1938, the evil was equal, the ideology just as dangerous.
It is this fear that means the option to not intervene was unthinkable. He joins the POUM and goes to the frontline with them. His original intention to write as a journalist passing immediately. What becomes apparent from the start is how ill-equipped the revolutionists are. After days of drill, he notes there is no weapons class because they lack any firearms to train with.
None of the disarray deters Orwell. Indeed, in the early chapters the rag-tag outfits parade the streets as a symbol for hope and change. Those that would oppose chose to wear working class garments to go undetected.
The accounts reflect, how after 115 days on the frontline, the class divisions have returned to the streets and the revolution isn’t as strong. During his leave from the front, he is involved in a stand-off, with opposing forces occupying neighbouring buildings, all with gentlemen’s agreements in place. Agreements he sees as fickle as the unity between parties.
Upon returning to action, a gunshot wound to his throat sees him leave conflict for good. He decides to depart Spain but the POUM are declared illegal and a suppression against their members means he has to evade detection. This further underlines the falsehoods and lies such wars bring about. He worries that those still fighting are being turned into scapegoats despite having honourable intentions.
Homage to Catalonia isn’t a perfect body of work, the language can become repetitive, proving, no matter the talent, there is a vast difference between journalism and storytelling. And his accounts here do not fill in the complete picture, he warns as much, but it’s an important snippet.
What is clear is the admiration he has for the Spanish people. Their generosity is highlighted on multiple occasions and he describes them as too noble (and albeit, too ill efficient) to serve a successful totalitarian regime.
His wider opinions aren’t explored in great depth. The arrival in Spain speaks volumes enough, and description included for democracy as the centralised swindling machine, shows he wasn’t fighting against communism, as he later would with words, but fighting with people to bring about change.
In time an extensive American propaganda machine would colour our perception of what communism was to the point it holds no value. In this raw, 1938 release, we see Orwell’s disillusionment with all methods to control the masses through misdirection.
That’s not to say he didn’t criticise the communist control of press but even papers back home in London failed to deliver true accounts, and on many occasion out-right lied about events in the Civil War. His views during this time have been labelled as Trotskyism but it’s fair to say Orwell had a democratic socialist heart that stood to fight totalitarianism.
Those efforts must have felt wasted in the immediate aftermath of his journey but sometimes making a stand is enough to ensure evil never wins. Franco may have retained power, but the damage inflicted from the resistance saved Spain in the long run.
By the time World War II arrived, Spain was crippled. Despite being in Germany’s pocket for over $215m of aid during the Spanish Civil War, they couldn’t align with a natural allied force. Even though Franco was receptive, he eventually submitted demands to Hitler he knew would be refused, sparing Spain further decline.
Without the anarchist’s intervention in the 1930s, Spain would easily have become an extension of Nazi Germany, possibly sending the whole world into a fascist state.
The fight for principles bared fruit in the passage of time.
Orwell couldn’t have foreseen how future decades would be shaped following his contribution to the Spanish Civil War but he strongly believed in standing against the opposing ideology. His future works would perfectly surmise complex political systems and falsities in simple terms. Homage to Catalonia lays bare the human cost of these deceptions and the lengths men will go to when protecting ideas.
Orwell demonstrates why revolution in the face of certain paradigm shifts is not only brave – it’s necessary.