A passion for justice in Catalonia
“If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: 'To fight against Fascism,' and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: 'Common decency.’”
This last week I’ve been reading the 1938 classic, “Homage to Catalonia”, by George Orwell who was to give us “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” both of which were strongly influenced by his time as a volunteer fighter during the Spanish civil war.
With all that’s going on in Spain following its fourth general election this month in as many years along with the ongoing crisis in Catalonia, I thought it about time I read this Orwellian classic.
The Spanish Civil War was a particularly bloody conflict, fought 1936 to 1939. between the Fascists led by Generalissimo Franco and the Republicans, mainly socialists and communists. With the support of Hitler and Mussolini, Franco won, and reigned in Spain until his death in 1975.
This conflict, often seen as a dress rehearsal for WW2, aroused strong passions, especially among those on the Left throughout Europe. Many intellectuals like Orwell downed their pens to take up their rifles against Fascism. About 32,000 men and women fought in the International Brigades. Not that George did much fighting, it would seem.
For the first seven chapters Orwell languishes on a “quiet sector of a quiet front” in Aragón, altogether some 115 days of tedium. He reports that main danger is from stray bullets from his own side, causing "an occasional death." Hardly heroic. When he is wounded by a sniper at Huesca, he seems relieved that at least he is wounded by a fascist on the other side.
It starts getting interesting when George returns wounded to Barcelona to be reunited with his wife. Here they get caught up in the street fighting between the various factions on the Left. “When you are making history you ought to feel like an historical character. But you never do.”
At this point it all gets confusing, not least – as Orwell himself comments. “As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names. PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me.” Me too
Also it took me about six chapters to work out that the Anarchists were a political grouping on the Left, strong in Catalonia, who rejected top down leadership rather than some arbitrary group of unkempt students. They – and not, it seems, the Fascists - are the real enemy as far as the Communists are concerned. "Aren't we all Socialists?" Orwell naïvely laments.
Finally in June 1937 Orwell with his wife are forced to flee – incidentally by train to Port Bou, I know the route well. They rest up at the pretty French seaside town Banyuls-sur-Mer, which as it happens Jacqui and I visited this summer.
On his return to England he reflected "No one who was in Spain during the months when people still believed in the revolution will ever forget that strange and moving experience. It has left something behind that no dictatorship, not even Franco's, will be able to efface."
"Homage to Catalonia" was a commercial flop, selling less than 700 copies. But clearly the experience seared Orwell deeply, leaving him with a strong antipathy to totalitarianism, especially that of Communism. Hence the famous quote from "Animal Farm": “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
However, for me the big surprise is Orwell’s own conclusion of his foray into the Spanish Civil War. He reflects in the closing chapter: “Curiously enough, the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
Given all that he witnessed, I cannot for the life of me see how he reached this conclusion. Maybe he saw in some participants a passion for justice even at some personal cost. Certainly he comes to value the people of Catalonia and the ideals for which they fought.
So at the beginning of the book and at the outset of the Revolution, he comments how in Barcelona the socialist ideal was being practiced in everyday life: “Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.” Sadly, this idealism was to give way to internecine strife.
Orwell did not see himself as a Christian but nevertheless he observed: “One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.”
However, he regularly attended Communion, knew his Bible well and could quote extensively from the Book of Common Prayer. Strangely he left instructions for an Anglican funeral. There was something deeply Christian about Orwell in his passion for truth and justice, whatever the cost.
In all this he could see, if only just glimpse, what would happen when God’s will is finally done here on earth as it is in heaven, when swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruninghooks. And of course, God has already paid the cost.