In HOMAGE TO CATALONIA, the brilliant novelist George Orwell recounts his experiences while serving in a militia during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.
Orwell, a socialist, visited Spain in December 1936. His goal was to write about the fight against the fascist rebellion led by General Franco in the hopes of stirring working class opinion in the UK and France. He immediately enlisted. By chance, he fought with militias formed by the POUM, an anti-Stalinist socialist party. Anarchist parties had taken over Barcelona before he arrived, transforming the city into the closest thing he’d ever seen to ideal socialism in practice. The workers ran the factories, they patrolled neighborhoods as citizen police, class differentiation had virtually disappeared, and their militias had fought the fascist uprising to a standstill.
In Orwell’s clear prose, he describes his experiences in training and at the Aragon front, where nothing much was happening due to a lack of equipment on both sides of the conflict. After 115 days at the front, including some action at Huesca, he returned to Barcelona to find it a very different city. The Communists, which were supported by the USSR, had begun to dominate over the POUM and the Anarchists, slowly propagandizing against them and stripping away their powers. The Communists subverted the revolution that was in full swing, believing in centralized authority and industrial management along the Stalinist model. As a result, they allied with liberals and moderates to promote reforming the police, building a professional army, and bringing back class, believing this was the only way to win against Franco. While Orwell rejected the politics behind the lines, only caring about the fight against fascism, these politics resulted in a mini civil war in Barcelona. Backed by the professional army and police, the Communists suppressed the POUM and Anarchists, resulting in wholesale arrests and executions backed by kangaroo courts and censorship.
In the end, instead of fighting fascists, Orwell, who’d been wounded after his brief return to the front, found himself and his wife fleeing for their lives. While he wasn’t a POUM member, he’d fought for them, and though he’d been medically discharged, hew as guilty of the crime of having fought for them in the past.
Orwell hated totalitarianism in all forms, communist and fascist. He left Spain still committed to socialism, drawing inspiration from Barcelona in the first months of the war, but had become a dedicated enemy of Stalinist communism. His beliefs and experiences led to his writing ANIMAL FARM and 1984, which remain solid classics in dystopian literature.
Overall, HOMAGE TO CATALONIA is one the best firsthand accounts of the Spanish Civil War, produced by one of the twentieth century’s most important voices.