One day in December of 1936, Eric Arthur Blair did what many young idealists of the time were doing: he made his way from England to Barcelona, (wife in tow) to join the Spanish militia to fight against Franco and the global specter of fascism. As a journalist, he had originally anticipated writing articles documenting the brutal civil war, but almost immediately the revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona persuaded him to abandon his pen and join arms with his fellow revolutionaries. The International Brigade, comprised of volunteers from around the world, were taking their stand to fight for the “last great cause.”
Blair would eventually adopt the pen name “George Orwell,” and his experience would be written into a short memoir, Homage to Catalonia, but at this exact moment in time, Orwell was standing in line to register for one of the “kaleidoscope of political parties” and somewhat arbitrarily getting assigned to the POUM or the The Workers' Party of Marxist Unification. Not knowing there were differences to each political faction, the “plague of initials” and the myriad of political parties seemed chaotic and unnecessary. Weren’t they all revolutionaries? Weren’t they all there to fight against the Hitlers and Mussolinis that had slowly been sucking the countries of Europe (and Abyssinia) into their vortex? The democratic peoples of the world had stood by and watched their governments do nothing, one altercation at a time and then the people of Catalonia had decided to take their stand, and volunteers from around the world had traveled to stand with them.
“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.’ I had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesmen version of the war as the defense of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler…
As a militiaman one was a soldier against Franco, but one was also a pawn in an enormous struggle that was being fought out between two political theories. When I scrounged for firewood on the mountain-side and wondered whether this was really the war or whether the News Chronicle had made it up, when I dodged the Communist machine-guns in the Barcelona riots, when I finally fled from Spain with the police one jump behind me- all these things happened to me in that particular way because I was serving in the POUM militia and not in the PSUC. So great is the difference between two sets of initials!” [p. 198]
And so, like Alice, he fell down a rabbit hole and emerged into a type of Wonderland that festered with chaos and disorganization and perpetually defied reason.
Ostensibly, he was volunteering for the Republicans, (a coalition of pro-democracy left wing parties,) but this ‘plague of initials’ had ominous implications. He was joining forces with an “idea” that had been fractured by internal division amongst the many differing views of socialism and communism, and without a unifying stance the infighting amongst the left was precariously poised to collapse. Stalin had greatly reduced his military commitment to the leftist rebels, out of fear of becoming overextended in territorial disputes closer to home, practically this resulted in lack of supplies and an impoverished militia, forced to cobble together weaponry to throw at Franco’s Nationalists (comprised of right-wing conservative Catholics), well supplied by Hitler and Mussolini.
“I have spoken of the militia ‘uniform’ which probably gives a wrong impression. It was not exactly a uniform. Perhaps ‘multiform’ would be the proper name for it. Everyone’s clothes followed the same general plan, but they were never quite the same in any two cases.” [p.7]
Frequently without blankets, guns that worked or the ammunition to fire with, the revolutionary battalion seemed to have materialized from another era, if not an entirely different dimension.
‘On my second day at the barracks there began what was comically called ‘instruction’. At the beginning there were frightful scenes of chaos. The recruits were mostly boys of sixteen or seventeen from the back streets of Barcelona, full of revolutionary ardor but completely ignorant of the meaning of war. It was impossible even to get them to stand in line. Discipline did not exist; if a man disliked an order he would step out of the ranks and argue fiercely with the officer. ” [p.7]
Drill practice usually dissolved into a swarm of men stopping over at the corner grocers and drinking cheep wine. There was the occasional troop transport that got lost en route with the volunteer militia wandering in the mist for hours looking for their battle station. The disorganization was epic.
With attacks from the enemy infrequent and rarely concerning, Orwell finds the majority of his time taken up with matters of survival rather than war, as he forages for kindling, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy.
“War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant, mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the old cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on the sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot tops. I admit, too, that I felt a kind of horror as I looked at the people I was marching among. You cannot possibly conceive what a rabble we looked. We straggled along with far less cohesion than a flock of sheep; before we had gone two miles the rear of the column was out of sight…It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use.” [p18]
The trenches were filled with excrement; the weaponry was so awful that Orwell spends a good deal of time recording in detail the specific atrocities: one machine gun to fifty men, twenty year old Mausers that continually jammed, ammunition so scarce that each man was issued only fifty rounds…total, no tin hats, no bayonets, grenades that only detonate half the time, etc.
But perhaps the most inconvenient and troublesome thing became the perpetual trouser louse.
“The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives continually in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seems of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae - every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles. “ [p. 54]
In April, after four months at the front, Orwell is given leave and returns to Barcelona to find his wife. The lice had been multiplying in his trousers faster than he could kill them, he had no socks and his boots had worn such a variety of holes that he was essentially barefoot. He wanted a hot bath, to fall asleep between clean sheets and for a few days re-emerge into civilized society. Despite the lack of adequate…everything, he had retained an aura of hope:
“When we went on leave I had been a hundred and fifteen days in the line, and at the time this period seemed to me to have been one of the most futile of my whole life. 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 to suffer from the cold and lack of sleep. Perhaps that is the fate of most soldiers in most wars. But now that I can see this period in perspective I do not altogether regret it…They formed a kind of interregnum in my life quite different from anything that had gone before and perhaps from anything that is to come, and they taught me things that I could not have learned in any other way.” [p. 86]
What he learned was that despite the deprivations, despite their lack of experience and having virtually done nothing of military value: “One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.” [p.87]
During his absence, the atmosphere of Barcelona had changed. No more revolutionary spirit, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” had been exchanged for disparity. Hierarchies had reemerged between class and the bourgeoisie had reinstated itself. While food and commodities were scarce for the working class, the wealthy luxuriated in their blackmarket goods and pleasantries. Perhaps more disturbing was the militarized in-fighting between the Communists and the Marxists. Barricades had been erected and the communists accused the POUM of being fascist traitors.
The political turmoil is disillusioning. The division between the left is far greater than he had initially realized, it is fractured beyond repair and threatens to cripple the Republicans’ war effort against the Nationalists. Rather than idealists fighting for home in humanity, the communists have been revealed to be undemocratic manipulative aggressors, like any other political party vying for power.
And while the civil war rages in its own Spanish way, and while the political factions are bent on tearing each other apart, the general population has grown indifferent. Their attention span for war and deprivation has run its course and they seem less enthused about revolution than they are about the occasional trip to the beach for a quick sunbathe. The ‘front’ had become a sort of ‘mythical far off place’ where men and boys went off and disappeared or returned home with wealth (their back pay) if not glory. In just a few short months, being a revolutionary was no longer fashionable.
Orwell returns to the front and is subsequently shot in the neck. Once again he makes his way back to Barcelona where the political infighting has now spilled over into the citizenry. There is an atmosphere of “suspicion, fear, uncertainty and veiled hatred.” The war that seemed impossible to find has now emerged in the streets of Barcelona.
“The whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement. The sunlit streets were quite empty. Nothing was happening except the streaming of bullets from barricades and sandbagged windows…What the devil was happening, who was fighting whom and who was winning, was at first very difficult to discover.” [p.117]
The rest and luxury of Barcelona has been exchanged for the deprivations of the frontline, and Orwell and his wife live off the occasional sardine and bits of goat cheese. Orwell had picked the wrong political party and now his membership in POUM has made him a fugitive. His friends and compatriots are being thrown into jail en masse, in what can only be described as a reign of terror. The law, for now, was what the police decided to make it.
As the Spanish hope for democracy seems to be over, the only hope seems to be if Franco and his mercenaries can be driven into the sea and exchanged for any other form of stifling dictatorship, even that would have been worth fighting for.
Orwell and his wife miraculously manage to get on a train and leave the country, escaping to France, only too eager to leave the chaos of Barcelona behind them. Despite the horror, despite all of the mess and disorganization, as Orwell looks back on his experience rather than disillusionment or horror he has a sense of hope and in a strange way a cemented “belief in the decency of human beings.” In every climate, on every battlefield, there exists the potential for both the cowardly and the heroic. And despite the odds, people will continue to fight for what they believe in.