“I had joined the militia in order to fight against Fascism, and as yet I had scarcely fought at all, had merely existed as a sort of passive object, doing nothing in return for my rations except suffer from cold and lack of sleep. Perhaps that is the fate of most soldiers in most wars.”
It was interesting to read this immediately after “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club” about the life of the modern soldier in Afghanistan. Hennessey and his fellow soldiers may have complained about their kit, but George Orwell’s POUM Militia, would have been grateful for just a gun which worked.
George Orwell didn’t see a lot of fighting and may not even have killed a single fascist. He narrowly escaped being killed himself, when he was shot in the neck.
Doctors and nurses failed to assure him that a man hit through the neck, who survives is the luckiest man alive. “I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all.”
George Orwell went to Spain to report on the war in late 1936. Arriving in Barcelona he got caught up in the revolutionary feeling of the city and joined the militia. He joined POUM because he arrived with ILP papers. At the time he didn’t think there was a great difference between the government forces fighting fascism. He later learnt that the Communists backed by the USSR, were keen to suppress any revolutionary or “Trotskyist” forces, which their propaganda arm dubbed as closet fascists.
Orwell observes “anyone who criticises Communist policy from a Left-wing standpoint is liable to be denounced as a Trotskyist.”
After months on the front, where he fought more with the lice in his trousers than the fascists, he returned to Barcelona to be branded a traitor and an enemy of the state because he had been in a POUM (‘Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista’) regiment. Orwell escaped Spain but many of his friends were arrested, disappeared and ultimately died in the custody of the Communists.
There are elements in the narrative that emerge again in his later more famous works “Animal Farm” and “1984“. “Animal Farm” is a satire on the failure of Stalinism, we see in Napoleon’s propaganda against Snowball, much that came from the Communist PSUC’s attacks on POUM.
Also we see in the trenches the big rats that scared Orwell so much and were used in 1984‘s Room 101.
Civil Wars are messy, like in the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s, there were more than two sides in this conflict, as Orwell ably demonstrates. This book is justly famous for its disillusioned account of how the Communist Party—in its eagerness to defeat Franco’s fascism and ally itself with Stalin’s USSR–betrayed the successful anarchist experiment in Catalonia for the sake of expedience, how it executed and imprisoned its anarchist and socialist comrades for the sake of a temporary alliance with the bourgeois.
I have now read most of Orwell’s books, all that remains are The Road To Wigan Pier and “A Clergyman’s Daughter”, which I imagine I’ll get around to one day. At the age of about nine or ten “Animal Farm” was read to us by our teacher in junior school. I read “1984” as a teen heavily obsessed with sci-fi. Whilst I’ve forgotten most of the sci-fi novels I read then, I still vividly remember the story of 1984.
In the nineties I went through an Orwell phase reading “Burmese Days“, “Down and out in Paris and London“, “Coming Up For Air” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying“.
I am not sure how reliable a narrator, George Orwell is. His first book “Down and out in Paris and London” overplays how impoverished he was at the time in both cities, but is still a good read.
The edition I read came with two large appendices:
1. the first details the broader political context in Spain and the revolutionary situation in Barcelona
2. the second attempts to dispel some of the myths in the foreign press at the time
My rating 3 out of 5