Orwell’s brilliant firsthand account of the conflict stands apart from and well above the I-was-there school of emotive, narcissistic war reporting we witness too often today. He also attempts to put his personal experiences into some proper political context, in two chapters now removed (at his request) from the narrative text and published at the end as appendices.
Here, Orwell closely interrogates and challenges the ‘official version’ of events in Barcelona, put about by the Communists and their many international apologists to justify their brutal repression of the non-Stalinist left. As he unravels the twisting of truth by propaganda organs such as the CPGB’s Daily Worker, you can almost see the ideas he was soon to express in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is also cutting about the way that the Communists simply branded their opponents as ‘Social-fascists’ and ‘Trotsky-Fascists’ to avoid engaging in important political arguments. Many who express their admiration for Orwell today have yet to absorb his point that screaming ‘Fascists!’ in the faces of those you disagree with is not the same thing as making your case. ‘Libel’, as he concludes, ‘settles nothing’.
The likes of Orwell and the International Brigades who went to Spain have also often been cited in recent years by those demanding British and Western intervention in international crises, from the Balkans to the Middle East. But Orwell and his comrades-in-arms in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s were no laptop bombardiers, demanding that their governments bomb the world to freedom. They went to fight for what they believed in. Orwell himself observed with suitable scepticism the presence of Royal Navy warships off the coast during the height of the Barcelona crisis: ‘It is at least inherently likely that the British government, which had not raised a finger to save the Spanish government from Franco, would intervene quickly enough to save it from its own working class.’
Orwell may not always have been right. However, he was willing not only to fight fascism on the battlefield, but also to speak out almost alone in Britain against the pro-Stalinist consensus on the European left. Seventy-five years on, Homage to Catalonia should still make us grateful that the military doctor who told the wounded Orwell that he had lost his voice forever was wrong.
It’s a beautifully written book, and Orwell’s bravery cannot be denied. But he may have been on the wrong side of the war in Spain, as Warren Carroll wrote in the American Spectator that year:
WHEN THE HEROICS of the Spanish Civil War come up — Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Hemingway’s fictions or the effusions of various poets — there is a very large and usually unremarked elephant in the room: Orwell, who actually fought, and Hemingway who wrote about fighting, were on the wrong side.
The strategic point is simple: had the Stalinists won war, then during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact from 1939 to mid-1941, they would have allowed Hitler to cross Spain and seize Gibraltar. Had this happened, the British forces in the Mediterranean, including the British Empire’s last remaining field army in action, would have been cut off. The British army and fleet could probably have been supplied through the Suez Canal, at least for a while, but their positions would have been immeasurably weakened, and the enemy’s position immeasurably strengthened.
There would have been no Force H to sally forth from Gibraltar to stop the Bismarck massacring the Atlantic convoys, eventually the Middle-East oilfields and the Suez Canal would quite likely have fallen into Nazi hands, as would the Jewish population of what would become Israel. Fascism and Nazism would have ruled the Mediterranean and there would have been little to stop them reaching the shores of the Indian Ocean, and perhaps eventually joining up in India with the Japanese. The chances would have greatly increased that Hitler would have won the war, and even if America had come in before that, eventual victory for the allies would have been much more costly. As it was, Franco refused to allow Hitler to attack Gibraltar through Spain, though Hitler met him and harangued him for hours. Franco also later gave the Allies at least passive help in the “Torch” landings on North Africa. Some Franco diplomats were active (unlike the Vichy French) is saving Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them false passports.
It is an interesting exercise to put oneself in Franco’s place — leader of a desperately weak, divided and exhausted country — and wonder if one would have done so well against Hitler — who was not only, by all accounts, spell-bindingly persuasive, but also master of the mightiest Army the world had ever seen, who had smashed France flat in a month and whose flag flew from North Cape in the Arctic to Africa.
Or as Orrin Judd added in blog post titled “Between the Reich and the Rock,” linking to Carroll’s Spectator article, the Spanish Civil War may have been “the first battle of the Cold War, with the Western Left, not atypically, on the wrong side.”