Review of Orwell’s Experience in the Spanish Civil War and WWII

Book One, Homage to Catalonia:

When George Orwell was in his early 30s, he went to fight in the Spanish civil war against the fascists. He fought for The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification — also known as the POUM. In 1936 the Spanish military staged a coup to put Franciso Franco in total control of the country. Franco would be supported by Nazi Germany and Italy, with the various workers movements being supported by Russia. The ideological shape of Europe at the time consisted of a battle between the workers movement centered in Russia, and the insidious forms of fascism, which had taken their firmest roots in Germany. Even within the relative stability of Britain and the U.S. a deep fear of socialism began to spread, built on a fear of workers collective strength expropriating and nationalizing government and industry; a fear articulated in Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, where he predicted the end of capitalism.

For Orwell, the lives of the working poor in Britain were horrific when compared to the upper class. His book The Road to Wigan Pier was based on his diaries and travels through the industrial north of WWII. The observations in the first half of the book subtly endorsed socialism, yet he also focused on its practical failures within Britain, frustrating his publisher and his primary audience. Despite his careful approach, Orwell saw a country and world where things were going to change rapidly, either ending in suffering and repressing or one where the poor gained more political power and no longer suffered while the rich lived opulently. So despite being British, he saw Spain as the start of a larger battle.

The ideas behind communism and fascism combined with the modern age of industrialization hadn’t been tested, but held the promise of a better world. In a sense, each offered the same thing to those in society who whenever they looked at those more well-off, saw an ease of life they could never hope to obtain, and the opportunity to live with what they saw as dignity. The realm of communism would achieve the goal through collectivization and removal of the capitalists, industrialists, aristocrats, and politicians, whose opulence put the poor in relative shame. Fascism on the other hand didn’t come with a handbook, and to me often seems to rest more on nationalism and transformative leadership. However, most modern forms of fascism often involve bribing the major capitalists in an economy until it is possible to coerce them with violence, and giving meaning through manufactured employment and some type of nationalist fervor to the working class. These tactics can be found today in Syria, as I wrote in a previous post, but with a slightly more sectarian twist.

Orwell was not alone in seeing these two ideologies building up throughout Europe. But he focused on the specific institutions, people, and parties within countries and their neighbors.

This book is largely about his time on the front lines. The anti-fascist forces were more united by common enemy than ideological similarities. There were variations on communist groups, socialist, anarchist, and worker syndicates. Their lack of organization and military supplies consistently came up in Orwell’s frustrations, but he also saw benefits in the style of military. The workers army he saw as based on class-loyalty, whereas a ‘bourgeois conscript army is based ultimately on fear’.

This book walks the reader through Orwell’s original belief in socialism, as well as his disillusionment with the ability to meaningfully fix and rebuild the foundations of a country through civil war. “This is not a war,” he used to say, “It is a comic opera with an occasional death.”

Below I’ve included more of my favorite excerpts:

“At Monte Pocero, when they pointed to the position our left and said: ‘Those are the Socialists’, I was puzzled and said: ‘Aren’t we all socialists?’ I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, ‘Why can’t we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’”

“When I came to Spain, and for some time afterwards, I was not only uninterested in the political situation but unaware of it. I knew there was a war on, but I had no notion what kind of a war. If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: “To fight against Fascism,” and if you should have asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency.”

“In England, where the Press is more centralized and the public more easily deceived than elsewhere, only two versions of the Spanish war have had any publicity to speak of: the Right-wing version of Christian patriots versus Bolsheviks dripping with blood, and the Left wing version of gentlemanly republicans quelling a military revolt.”

“In Spain the communist ‘line’ was influenced by the fact that France, Russia’s ally, would object to a revolutionary neighbor.”

“To fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control.”


Book Two, Orwell’s British Perspective on WWII

Following Orwell’s experience in Spain, he wrote about his time living in and near London leading up to, and during, WWII. Before reading this book my own casual historical view of WWII was that Britain rallied under Churchill’s iron will to defeat the Axis. At the time Orwell was in his late 30s, and was still recuperating from an injury he suffered in the Spanish Civil War (as a foreign fighter). Orwell’s diary portrays a different picture of a politically unstable environment, and a country that appeared to lack the motivation to go to war with Germany.

The Battle of France began on May 10th, 1940. Despite Hitler’s constant aggression, this was the first major battle involving allied forces. By May 26th most of France was occupied, and about 330,000 British and other Allied troops had retreated to the shores of Dunkirk. At this point there were talks among the British of making a conditional peace offer to the Germans, and the French formally surrendered. If the British lost hundreds of thousands of troops in the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F) it would be hard to imagine a situation where they could still contest Europe. This marks the beginning of Orwell’s wartime diary on May 28th, 1940. Orwell wrote that there was ‘no real news and little possibility of inferring what is really happening,’ but that he his suspicion was that the strategic situation the B.E.F was in was hopeless. Despite this, he said that people were not really talking about the war.

The people in the Censorship Department where Orwell’s wife, Eileen, worked, would lump all “red” papers together, and often prevent them from publication or export. Orwell also mentioned that there were rumors of air raids beginning in London, yet there still seemed to be little interest in the war as people are not grasping that they are in danger. Over the coming days, as the soldiers at Dunkirk were miraculously successfully evacuated, Orwell saw “The usual Sunday crowds drifting to and for, perambulators, cycling clubs, people exercising dogs, knots of young men loitering at street corners, with not an indication in any face or in anything … that they are likely to be invaded within a few weeks.”

I also thought Orwell’s comments on marketing at the time were hilarious. He observed “Huge advert. on the side of a bus: “FIRST AID IN WARTIME, FOR HEALTH, STRENGTH AND FORTITUDE. WRIGLEY’S CHEWING GUM.” Orwell was always particularly disgusted by wartime profiteering.

Throughout his diary, what I find most interesting his Orwell’s commitment to dispassionate political study of his time and country, while remaining steadfast in his personal nationalism and desire to defeat fascism. Orwell believed he was more clearly able to see the future than the British cabinet. Normally I’d accuse any writer of just cherry-picking his past predictions, but I think I trust Orwell here. His reasoning was as follows:

“Partly it is a question of not being blinded by class interests etc., eg. anyone not financially interested could see at a glance the strategic danger to England of letting Germany and Italy dominate Spain, whereas many rightwingers, even professional soldiers, simply could not grasp this most obvious fact. But where I feel that people like us understand the situation better than so-called experts is not in any power to foretell specific events, but in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in. At any rate I have known since about 1931 that the future must be catastrophic. I could not say exactly what wars and revolutions would happen, but they never surprised me when they came. Since 1934 I have known war between England and Germany was coming, and since 1936 I have known it with complete certainty.”

There are plenty of other brilliant paragraphs Orwell writes in his diary, but this is the final one I’ve chosen to include in this post:

“It is impossible even yet to decide what to do in the case of German conquest of England. The one thing I will not do is to clear out, at any rate not further than Ireland, supposing that to be feasible … If the U.S.A. is going to submit to conquest as well, there is nothing for it but to die fighting, but one must above all die fighting and have the satisfaction of killing somebody else first.”