“Homage to Catalonia” – George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War

The first time I read Homage to Catalonia was in 2004.

I remember because at the time, I was just a couple of months away from moving to Spain.

In those days, I didn’t know anything about the Spanish Civil War.

To be honest, I didn’t know that “Catalonia” was even a place.

I was in my early 20s then, and had just seen Orwell’s book on a list, ranked as one of the top non-fiction books of the recently-ended 20th century.

In fact, I shoplifted the book, because I was young and broke and didn’t believe in private property.

Take that, capitalism! Take that, George Orwell’s literary estate!

Anyway, when I started reading, I didn’t know what Homage to Catalonia was going to be about at all. So when I discovered that it just drops you into the middle of a civil war, with Orwell in Barcelona joining the militia, and then heading off to the Arag贸n front, I was quite surprised.

Of course, I didn’t know where Arag贸n was either. But I had heard of Barcelona, at least. A few weeks before that, I’d actually been there.

Yes, in the two months between my first visit to Spain and my decision to move here, I got an unexpected lesson in Spanish history, courtesy of Mr Orwell.

Homage to what, now?

Full disclosure: I’d taken a psych 101 class at university, and heard about catatonia, a condition in which people are generally unresponsive, and possibly unable to move.

I’d briefly glanced at the title Homage to Catalonia, misread the final word, and figured the book was about people experiencing some sort of physical or existential paralysis. Turns out, I’m not the only one to confuse the terms. The Wikipedia entry for catatonia starts out “Not to be confused with聽Katatonia,聽cataplexy,聽catalepsy,聽Catalonia, or聽Cataonia.

So this was my first exposure to the idea of Catalonia. A region in North-East Spain, with certain ambitions toward independence. Barcelona was (and is) its capital. The local language, Catalan, is spoken by many people there. They’d hosted the ’92 Olympics, which was, if I recall correctly, my introduction to the concept of Spain as a whole.

About the Spanish Civil War, in my early 20s, I knew basically two things:

  1. Anarchists were somehow involved and…
  2. The “bad guys” had won.

Other than that, I’m pretty sure I knew nothing: I didn’t know it’d taken place in the 1930s, or who exactly won, or how Spain had spent a few decades under a fascist dictatorship as a result 鈥 all that just wasn’t the kind of thing I’d learned about in any history class.

(I was hanging out with some anarchists in those days, which partially explains the shoplifting, and Spanish Civil War nostalgia seemed to be a hobby for the well-read among them. From the way they talked, I gathered that the Spanish Civil War had been a sort of high-water mark for the global anarchist movement.)

And I definitely found Orwell’s book to be interesting. But mostly, what I remembered later were his descriptions of being cold. I remembered him being on the run at the end, and sleeping in the streets… but on the run from whom?

I wasn’t sure. The fascists, most likely.

All this to say: I didn’t come out of my first reading of Homage to Catalonia as any sort of expert on Spanish history. And I didn’t think much more about it.

When I moved to Madrid, though, two months later 鈥 for reasons unrelated to anarchism or civil war nostalgia 鈥 I found that there was both a thriving publishing industry and a continuous public debate about the Civil War and its aftermath.

The government was 鈥 at that time, in the early aughts 鈥 just thinking of passing a “historical memory” law. (It was eventually passed in 2007.) The last statues from the dictatorship were coming down, the mass graves were finally being dug up, and every bookstore in town had dozens of books about the conflict.

Sooner or later, I was able to read newspapers in Spanish, and talk to people at a higher level, and I picked up the basic narrative, which hasn’t changed much in the past (almost) 20 years: the Spanish Civil War was a simple “good guys” vs “bad guys” story.

Here goes…

The history of the Spanish Civil War in 100 words or less

So the good guys (the socialists and anarchists) won an election in 1931, kicked the king out of the country, and declared a Republic. They set about modernizing Spain along the lines of a workers’ utopia. This really angered the bad guys (the fascists), who organized a military coup in 1936, which led to a three-year civil war which the bad guys (the fascists) won. Franco (the #1 bad guy) became dictator and somehow stayed in power for almost 40 years, until the mid-70s, when he died and Spain started the transition towards the parliamentary democracy we enjoy today.

That’s the basic narrative I kept hearing about the Civil War, in just under 100 words. And it’s not entirely untrue 鈥 at least, depending on who you ask.

But of course, the real story is much longer and more complicated. Orwell’s personal account is of trench warfare against the fascists in Arag贸n (another northern province) and street fighting between leftist factions in Barcelona 鈥 a small part of the overall conflict, but it’s what he experienced personally.

Apparently, old George 鈥撀爎eal name Eric Arthur Blair 鈥 came to Spain in late 1936 and just joined a militia fighting on the Republican side, a bit later writing Homage to Catalonia about his experiences.

(I’ll be using “Republican” here in its Spanish sense, to refer to the government of the Second Republic that lasted from 1931 until the end of the Civil War 鈥 not to be confused with the US Republican party of Abraham Lincoln and… um… others. These days, in Spain, a Republican is someone who’s against the monarchy, and they’re generally on the left.)

The book wasn’t popular at the time it was published 鈥 Orwell died having not even sold the initial print run of 1500 copies. But eventually, it became a classic 鈥 an internationally known account of what “really” went on during the war.

(It’s so popular, in fact, that when I went to the bookshop attached to the Barcelona History Museum a few days ago, I found they have a whole section called Homenatge a Catalunya, with Orwell’s book prominently displayed among many others that deal with Barcelona and Catalonia’s role in the Civil War.)

So Orwell’s personal story forms a large part of the canonical narrative, especially in the English-speaking world. And for years, I didn’t know any more about the war than what I’d learned from his book (mostly, like I said, that he was in the trenches and it was cold) and what I’d picked up from talking to people here and there.

Finnish partisans in the Spanish Civil War (from Wikipedia).

I attempted to read Hugh Thomas’ two-volume history at one point, and found it to be long, confusing and tough to get through. Maybe I still didn’t have enough context on Spain as a whole.

Anyway, I’m guessing I’m not the only one. There are probably a lot of people like me out there, who don’t know much about the Civil War at all, apart from the basic good guys / bad guys story.

“Land and Freedom” in the crusty anarchist meeting hall

At one point, some Euro-hipster friends invited me to see Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom at the CNT headquarters in Madrid.

The CNT was one of the anarchist labor unions I’d heard about from Orwell. They’d been underground and in exile during the dictatorship, but were back 鈥 albeit in much smaller numbers than before 鈥 with an office on Plaza de Tirso de Molina.

And that night, they were showing a movie by a director I’d never heard of. Euro-hipsters, I’d discovered by this time, tended to name-drop obscure film directors as if it were obvious to everyone else who they were talking about. And, not wanting to seem like another ignorant American, I just went along. (I was hoping to make out with one of the girls, obviously.)

In any case, we sat on the floor in a CNT meeting room, surrounded by crusty anarchist types, and watched a movie that was basically just Orwell’s book with an added love story.

Orwell’s story, if you read it closely 鈥 and later Ken Loach’s story 鈥 is a bit more complex than the basic good guys / bad guys thing, because it turns out that the “good guys” ended up asking for help from the Soviet Union, and the Soviets came in and decided to get rid of the revolutionary parties, starting with the one Orwell was fighting with, the POUM. That’s the Partido Obrero de Unificaci贸n Marxista, if you want the full name.

So, updated and slightly-more-accurate narrative: the good guys team up with some really bad guys, and lose the war due to the typical “leftist infighting” which results.

On my first reading of Homage to Catalonia, I guess I glossed over some of the uglier bits of the infighting. The mainstream narrative tends to gloss over it, too.

What happened?

Well, some of it was just a difference of opinion among leftist parties. Was it more important to carry on with the social revolution that was taking place (redistributing land to the peasants and such) or should they put that aside and focus on winning the war?

The anarchists and others wanted to continue the revolution, but apparently the Soviets didn’t. And at the time, I didn’t know much about Stalinism, or about the tension between fascism, communism and the parliamentary democracies in Europe between world wars.

I didn’t know anything about the Red Terror, or Stalin’s persecution of Trotskyism.

Now I do. And let’s put it politely: Stalin wasn’t one of the good guys.

I re-read Homage to Catalonia a couple of weeks ago, as a follow-up to reading Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain.

I’d always 鈥撀爐ill now 鈥 accepted the idea that the Civil War was winnable for the “good guys”, but some unnecessary squabbling among factions on the left had made them lose.

Beevor tells a different story. And so, it turns out, does Orwell.

Let’s just say that the Spanish Civil War is much more complicated than I once thought.

On second reading, and knowing more about the context, it looks like what a lot of people have been calling “leftist infighting” was more like a Stalinst purge.

The Republic was getting weapons from the USSR, and so the USSR started calling the shots in Spain. That, plus the help of Italy and Germany on the Fascist side, plus the extreme incompetence of nearly everyone in the Republican leadership, is a more likely explanation for the way things turned out.

At the end of the book, Orwell ends up fleeing Spain because otherwise he fears he’ll end up in prison.

Not a fascist prison, but a prison run by the Republican government 鈥撀爐he good guys, the ones on his side! 鈥撀爓ho were now taking their instructions from Moscow. And all because he’d more-or-less accidentally signed up for the “wrong” party’s militia on his arrival.

More about the leftist infighting 鈥 ahem 鈥 Stalinist purges later.

Let’s get to the war.

Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War

There’s a lot of great detail in this book. Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

Upon receiving a gift of chorizo:

“Williams’s wife came rushing down the platform and gave us a bottle of wine and a foot of that bright red sausage that tastes of soap and gives you diarrhoea.”

Pretty harsh, but okay. Maybe the food quality wasn’t good at the time.

Here’s Orwell coming across an old bullfighting poster from the year before the war:

“Where were the handsome bulls and the handsome bullfighters now? It appeared that even in Barcelona there were hardly any bullfights nowadays; for some reason all the best matadors were Fascists.”

These days, the association of bullfighting with right-wing politics seems rather obvious 鈥 in fact, the whole practice is banned in Catalonia 鈥 but back in the day all kinds of people watched bullfighting, even on the left. Perhaps they didn’t become bullfighters themselves, though.

Here’s old George reaching the small town of Alcubierre on the Aragonese front:

“When you had been to the Comit茅 de Guerra and inspected the row of holes in the wall 鈥 holes made by rifle-volleys, various Fascists having been executed there 鈥 you had seen all the sights that Alcubierre contained.”

Here he is talking about life in the trenches near Zaragoza:

“In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.”

On the organization of the revolutionary militia, where everyone was considered equal and no-one felt particularly obligated to follow orders:

“At the beginning, the apparent chaos, the general lack of training, the fact that you often had to argue for five minutes before you could get an order obeyed, appalled and infuriated me.”

Apparently, if you disagreed with an order in one of the revolutionary militias, you were free to argue with your commanding officer about it in front of everyone. All soldiers were paid equally at the beginning, and “rank” was considered mostly a formality. All this changed later on, though, when a professional army was formed to replace the impromptu militias that had sprung up in the early days of the war.

Here’s Orwell on the generous spirit of the Catalan people:

“There was a section of Andalusians next to us in the line. I do not know quite how they got to this front. The current explanation was that they had run away from M谩laga so fast they had forgotten to stop at Valencia; but this, of course, came from the Catalans, who professed to look down on the Andalusians as a race of semi-savages.”

There’s still some prejudice against Andalusians up here. You hear about it from time to time.

And finally, upon being shot in the neck, after returning to the front after a short but eventful stint back in Barcelona:

“A Fascist sniper got me… I had been about ten days at the front when it happened. The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.”

I love that line, the understated Britishness of it.

Orwell hated Sagrada Familia and you should too

Okay, one more quote.

Here’s what Orwell said upon seeing Gaud铆’s dusty wreck of a masterwork, la Sagrada Familia.

“For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral 鈥 a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world. It has four crenellated spires exactly the shape of hock bottles. Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution 鈥 it was spared because of its 鈥榓rtistic value鈥, people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance…”

Outside the perpetually unfinished Sagrada Familia, a few years ago.

In typical British fashion, he just assumes that Sagrada Familia is “the cathedral”. In actual fact it’s a “templo expiatorio” and a basilica, but not a cathedral 鈥 Barcelona’s cathedral is officially La Santa Iglesia Catedral Bas铆lica Metropolitana de la Santa Cruz y Santa Eulalia. And that’s a mouthful. So I can understand the confusion.

Anyway, Orwell was shot in the neck, spent some time in hospitals, and upon coming back to Barcelona found that his political party had been made illegal and he was likely to be arrested. He spent a couple of weeks keeping a low profile, sleeping on the streets so as not to be denounced by the staff at his hotel. Finally he and his wife flee on the train to France, and arrive back in England in June 1937.

End of story. But not really.

Was the Civil War “the last great cause”?

A lot of people at the time thought that the Spanish Civil War was the last great cause 鈥 a clear-cut good guy / bad guy story in which you could go and take up arms against the Fascist menace, defend democracy and European values, etc.

One thing, though, that strikes me from the book is all Orwell’s talk of feeling conflicted.

On the one hand, these were historic events that he was taking part in. He’d come to Spain to risk his life for a great cause. On the other, once in Spain he spent most of the time not feeling heroic at all, but rather dealing with the merely physical aspects of life in wartime: he was tired, cold, bored, hungry, and had lice crawling around on his balls.

The Republic is short on rifles, and on bullets, so he takes a few shots at Fascists and doubts if he’s hit anyone. The orders seem to make no sense. More than once he says the whole thing is absurd. And In the end, he feels like he hasn’t done much of anything for the Republican cause except eat their food.

And then he’s almost put in prison by the people on his own side, for fighting for a party that doesn’t hold exactly the “correct” beliefs. He ends up quite disillusioned.

Another quote…

“This was not a round-up of criminals, it was merely a reign of terror. I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of ‘Trotskyism’. The fact that I had served in the POUM militia was quite enough to get me into prison.”

From his experience with totalitarianism behind Republican lines in Spain was born the Orwell who later wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the books that made him famous.

War, what is it good for?

The more complete histories of the Spanish Civil War talk a lot about political maneuvering among elites, the geopolitics of Fascism vs Communism and the brewing conflicts among the great powers in the lead-up to World War II.

Meanwhile, most of the actual fighting was done by peasants and working-class Spaniards who probably had little idea what was going on politically, and were just caught in the middle 鈥 many even conscripted by whoever was in charge locally, and sent off to fight against their will.

(That probably describes all wars, now that I think of it. The history books are written 鈥 mostly 鈥 about the elites making decisions in cosy boardrooms, a thousand miles from where people from the lower classes are dying, nameless, in the mud.)

The Republic, once their army had staged a coup against them, were left without much in the way of weaponry. They needed to get it from somewhere. And the USSR was the only country willing to help… with conditions, of course.

Italy and Germany supported the National side, as I said before. The UK and France stayed out of the whole thing. So did the US 鈥 with Congress voting to ban the export of arms to either side.

And it must be said that the USSR’s support of the Republic wasn’t massive: In exchange for most of Spain’s strategic gold reserves 鈥撀爏ome 510 tons of gold 鈥撀爐hey sent some weapons, technicians, and secret police. Despite their outsized influence on the conflict, the total number of Soviets in Spain was never more than about 700 at any one time.

In the end, the war wasn’t won by the side with the better arguments 鈥 it was won by the side with the better weapons.

Orwell wrote, after the fact, “The outcome of the Spanish war was settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin 鈥 at any rate not in Spain.”

Bourgeoisie and proletarians in 1930s Spain

This is a bit of a digression, but let’s do it anyway.

Reading books about the Civil War is interesting, among other things, because the Spanish people described in the 1930s sound so little like anyone I know who’s alive today.

The celebration of physical courage is one thing that sticks out in the histories 鈥 of unflinching calm in the face of death. This was a society, after all, in which bullfighting was one of the most popular forms entertainment.

Many accounts tell of madrile帽os cooly smoking cigarettes on the streetcorner while bombs or mortars fell around them. Today, those people’s grandkids and great grandkids just spent two years being deathly afraid to breathe.

(My wife Morena reports that one of our neighbors literally jumped out of the elevator with a shriek of terror when she stepped into it one evening. And this more than two years into the “pandemic”. That guy wouldn’t do well under artillery fire, I suppose.)

But what stuck out more in Orwell’s book was his description of the social classes in 1930s Spain.

Orwell seems to take for granted that there are basically two classes of people cities of that time: the bourgeoisie, and the proletarians (or working class). If you head to the country, you have land owners and peasants.

You can tell who’s who because the bourgeoisie wear ties and starched collars, while the workers wear overalls. And when Orwell arrives in Barcelona in December 1936 鈥 just a few months into the war 鈥 he doesn’t see anyone wearing a tie, and decides that the city is entirely controlled by the workers.

Five months later, he’s back from the trenches, and everything’s changed. Wealthy people are once again parading around, flaunting their status while the workers stand in breadlines. And all this in the middle of a civil war! He decides that the bourgeoisie had just been in disguise before, walking around dressed as workers until things went back to “normal”.

He mentions other classes of people from time to time as well: priests, police and soldiers, of course, and “the middle class”, which he refers to as a collection of shopkeepers, government officials, the wealthier peasants and others.

But mostly he seems to see Spanish society 鈥 and large parts of the Civil War 鈥 as a struggle between bourgeoisie and proletarians, capitalists and workers.

Was this a reasonable assumption to make in the 1930s? Maybe. I wasn’t there. But it seems a bit simplistic: a bit too good guy / bad guy to really be accurate.

The spectre of democratic socialism

Orwell spent his final years as a “democratic socialist” 鈥 and famously fought and wrote against totalitarianism.

He was a socialist, then, but not a Stalinist.

One of my favorite Orwell quotes, from The Road to Wigan Pier

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 鈥楽ocialism鈥 and 鈥楥ommunism鈥 draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 鈥楴ature Cure鈥 quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”

Touch茅, Mr O.

Like a lot of what Orwell wrote, I find that quote to be surprisingly relevant now, in the 2020s. I know “socialism” in some form is popular among the youngsters these days. I see the Karl Marx memes and the “eat the rich” sweatshirts.

However, most of the “online Marxists” I know seem to be upper-middle-class types who more or less openly despise the proletariat.

What do they mean by “socialism”, exactly? I’m not sure. Because they certainly don’t mean it in the same way as the people collectivizing the farmland back in the 30s.

The world has changed a lot in the last 90 years.

Here in Catalonia, social life is hardly a conflict between the tie-wearing bourgeoisie and class-conscious proletarians anymore.

For one thing, there’s been a lot of migration: many of the traditionally working-class jobs are now done by immigrants. And there’s been a general rise in the standard of living as well, to the point where your local fishmonger, mechanic, or bus-driver probably lives a life of absurd luxury compared to his (her?) counterparts in the early 20th century.

Personal anecdote: the other day I was at my butcher / deli, and the boss lady was explaining her personnel problems to one of the customers, saying that “Young people just don’t want to do this kind of work anymore”.

It’s true. The young Catalans are at university, learning about how Spain has been oppressing them for the last several centuries. They’re certainly not going to apply for jobs that involve butchering hogs when they finish, any more than your average US private-university socialist is going to sign up to work in a steel mill this summer.

Also, the labor unions like the CNT and the UGT still exist, but aren’t what they used to be. Most of the civil unrest in Catalonia these days is channelled into the cause of independence, not working-class solidarity.

And the peasants? I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t really think a class of people you’d call “peasants” still exist, out in the Catalan countryside. There are landowning farmers, small-town folks, probably a few geriatric shepherds. But the hard agricultural work 鈥 as far as I know 鈥 is largely done by migrant workers from Eastern Europe or Africa. Grape harvest in September and October, olives in December, down to Huelva or something for strawberries in spring.

All this to say, it’s hard for me to imagine the proletariat as a revolutionary class in modern Catalonia. Because most of the current working class is from elsewhere.

Street fighting in Barcelona… 隆A las barricadas!

Orwell says several times in the book that Barcelona is a city that’s used to street fighting. Well, okay. I’ve been here for about five years now. Everybody’s protesting something. And we have our riots from time to time. But the intensity has changed since those days.

Civil unrest in the 2020s isn’t the “pulling up the cobblestones and hunkering down behind a barricade with a rifle” type street-fighting that Orwell describes: it’s mostly limited to bottle-throwing and trashcan-burning and noise-making.

Occasionally, some windows get broken.

Paul Preston, another Civil War historian, says that Orwell’s book, while a classic memoir, isn’t particularly good as a history book. Old George just didn’t know anything about the context or what led up to the bits of the war that he saw.

But he must have known something I don’t.

If Barcelona was used to street fighting, what were the previous conflicts? All I know is that the Civil War was just one in a long series of violent episodes in Spanish politics 鈥 sort of a period between dictatorships, rather than the beginning of Spain’s dalliance with authoritarian governments.

That’s something for me to investigate for a future article.

Visiting Orwell’s Barcelona – all the top sights!

There’s not much to see in Barcelona, Orwell-wise.

There’s a plaza named after him 鈥 it’s nothing spectacular, and I don’t think anything Orwell-related ever happened there.

The building that was the POUM headquarters now has a plaque commemorating Andreu Nin, the founder of the party 鈥 he was eventually murdered by Stalinists. The plaque is between the Subway sandwich shop and the moneychaning office on the Rambla, just a few steps from la Plaza de Catalu帽a.

andreu nin plaque barcelona
The plaque on the old POUM headquarters, Las Ramblas, Barcelona.

Hotel Continental, where Orwell stayed with his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, is still there, too.

It was taken over by the labor unions during the war 鈥撀爐he hotel’s website says that the family who owned the hotel “was invited to leave”. After the war, they returned, and their descendants own the hotel to this day. It’s right around the corner from the Barcelona’s first penis-shaped waffle establishment, and across from Boada Cocktails, a place Hemingway may have had a couple of drinks in, later on during the Civil War.

And across the street, the Teatre Poliorama, with its museum upstairs and the watchtower on top exactly like Orwell described it in the book. During the May Days fighting, the POUM didn’t have enough rifles to go around, so he spent his time in the tower reading, and presumably waiting for something to do.

Back on the G贸tico side of the street, right next to the old POUM headquarters, is Caf茅 Moka, which was occupied by the Assault Guards during the May Days.

Speaking of the bravery of people back then, how about this line, from when it looks like the POUM is going to have to fight it out with the police:

“I lay down on the sofa, feeling that I would like half an hour’s rest before the attack on the ‘Moka’, in which I should presumably be killed.”

Orwell wakes up the next morning, and finds that there was no attack on the Moka 鈥 in fact, the street fighting was coming to an end.

poliorama theatre barcelona catalonia
That little tower on top of the building is where Orwell spent most of the May Days fighting.

And that’s about it for Orwell’s Barcelona.

Homage to Catalonia was rejected by Orwell’s normal publishers, who didn’t want to be critical of Stalinism. And like I said, it was, at the time, pretty unsuccessful. Orwell went on to write his most famous works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, before dying at age 46.

It’s interesting to note that Orwell left Spain in 1937, and published Homage to Catalonia in 1938, so he has no hindsight bias. In the final chapters, it looks like he still thinks the Republic is going to win the war.

The Republican government may have to become fascist in order to do so, he says, but still it will be better than a dictatorship under Franco.

He genuinely seems to like Spanish people, and thinks they’ll make inefficient fascists:

“Fortunately this was Spain and not Germany. The Spanish secret police had some of the spirit of the Gestapo, but not much of its competence.”

Sort of a backhanded compliment, but in the end, I guess he was right.

What is fascism, anyway?

The word “fascism” didn’t have the same connotations back then as it does now. Orwell obviously didn’t like it, but it was just another type of government 鈥 kind of an authoritarian crony capitalism, if I understand correctly.

In fact, he spends the last chapters of the book lamenting that the civil war had given up its original goal of establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and that now the fight was just to preserve “bourgeois democracy” 鈥撀燼 more polite term, in his view, to describe capitalism.

It’s also interesting to note that although he was willing to travel across Europe in 1936 to risk his life in the fight against fascism, in 1944 he wrote an essay called What is Fascism? in which he said…

Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: 鈥榃hat is Fascism?鈥

George Orwell, (1944)

He havers a bit in attempting to answer his own question. Fascism is a pretty slippery concept, after all. Even today, the word can be used to mean almost anything.

Here’s perhaps my favorite Orwell quote of all time:

“[A]s used, the word 鈥楩ascism鈥 is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.”

I have no idea about Priestley, the 1922 Committee, etc, but his basic point still stands: people will use “fascist” to refer to basically anything they don’t like, politically.

Also, be careful. Your dog might be a fascist.

Final thoughts on the good guys and bad guys of history

Going back to the crusty anarchists at the CNT headquarters, and Ken Loach’s film, back when I was a young aspiring Euro-hipster: after the film was over, there was a Q and A with some bearded guy who was said to be an expert in something… Anarchism, perhaps.

An audience member with a mullet and a fanny pack (remember, this was around 2006, so all the leftists looked that way) asked a him long rambling question which amounted to “What’s the point of making a movie where the bad guys win?”

I don’t remember the answer that the bearded guy gave, but it certainly wasn’t my personal answer: that history sucked, and sometimes, the bad guys win.

Looking back, I don’t even know if the bad guys in Mr Mullet’s question were the Stalinists, or the fascists. But either way, it turned out badly for Orwell’s rag-tag team of good guys.

In the end, the Stalinists took over the leftist cause, crushed the social revolution, and in 1939, the Republic finally lost the war. But all that’s a story for another day.

Franco stuck around until his death in 1975. There was a dictatorship. There was further repression of leftist parties. A lot of people went to prison. A lot of people were hungry. It was, in a word, rather bleak.

The Spanish, apparently, spent a lot of time during the war and ensuing dictatorship hoping they’d be bailed out by the UK, or the US, or France. 

These democracies surely wouldn’t just let Franco win the war, would they? Okay, apparently they would. But they wouldn’t let him stick around after World War II, would they? Okay, apparently they would. But surely, they wouldn’t let actual fascism last until the mid-70s, would they? Well… you get the idea.

Stalin, on his end, went on to send a lot of people to the gulags, committed a genocide or two, and defeated Hitler on World War II’s northern front. He made it to 1956. There’s still some debate as to why the Soviet aid to the Republic was so half-hearted.

Orwell died in 1950.

Six thousand words later, let’s wrap this up…

I spent some time researching this article, and at this point I feel like I know more about Barcelona, but less about the Spanish Civil War, than I did before.

The reading I’ve done has opened up some interesting questions in my mind 鈥 questions I never would have had if I’d just stuck to the good guy / bad guy narrative.

Anthony Beevor mentions that the Spanish Civil War is one of the few exceptions to the rule of “history is written by the victors” 鈥撀燽ecause in this case the losers tell a much better story, and it’s the one everyone knows 鈥 if they know anything at all about Spanish history.

Even during the war, the Republic had much better propaganda, and received a much kinder treatment from the international press, than the National side did. Orwell wasn’t the only good writer on the Republican side 鈥撀燛rnest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, for example, were covering the action in Madrid.

Afterwards, a lot of the leftist intellectuals from Spain went into exile and continued writing from abroad.

Of course, Spain was in a dictatorship and most of that information was unavailable to Spaniards at the time. Even Hugh Thomas’ definitive history was banned until after Franco’s death. Spaniards were forced to learn the official fascist party line, and could be imprisoned for owning books that told a different story about the war.

It was only after the dictatorship ended that some re-evaluation started to take place within Spain. And the process is ongoing.

Just a few days ago, Jos茅 Antonio Primo de Rivera, one of the founders of Spanish fascism, was moved from his tomb in Valle de los Ca铆dos to a more low-key location. Franco himself was moved out of the same huge fascist monument a couple of years ago. All in the process of making the basilica outside Madrid a monument to people who fought on both sides of the war: victors and vanquished. This time, with more emphasis on the vanquished.

Anyway, Homage to Catalonia is a quick read. I give it five stars. And a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d be able to peck out a quick book review and call it a day.

The naivet茅 of couple-of-weeks-ago Daniel!

Oh well. Hope you’ve enjoyed this.

More soon.

Daniel, AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. The real tragedy in all of this is that I never made out with that Euro-hipster girl. Also, if you want more history, I recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series. Or Darryl Cooper over at the Martyrmade Podcast. His series about the 1960s social movements and Jim Jones is mindblowing, I wrote about it here: God’s Socialist. Have fun!

Daniel
 

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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