Orwell in Spain and the Syrian Civil War


George Orwell had originally intended to report on the Spanish Civil War but took the decision to become embroiled in the fighting when he read about the advance of Franco in the south. Homage to Catalonia begins as he enters Spain and joins the POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity, which was regarded as a Trotskyist organisation. In fact, as Orwell points out later, the party was less Trotskyist than people realised. In the end the ostensible association was to be the downfall of the party and thousands within its ranks.

Orwell joined primarily because he arrived in Spain with an ILP membership card; it was a chance coupling, at once fortunate and unfortunate. Arriving in Spain he admits he was somewhat unfamiliar with the political landscape behind the frontlines.

Alternative Goals, Disunity

In his naivete he assumed those fighting against the vicious fascist Franco were doing so for the same reasons. He believed the opposition were all united against the same enemy. To his dismay he discovered the discord between the anti-Franco militias and organisations. The conflict was simplified in the western press: democracy versus fascism.

However, the anarchists were pushing for a revolution; the communists, backed by the USSR, sought the status quo, a return to something like bourgeoisie capitalism; the socialists were seeking to install a blend of socialism and capitalism. The divisions were much more complex than this rudimentary explanation, and were less and more pronounced at different periods throughout the war.

Each sought the defeat of Franco, however, and had committed large numbers of soldiers to the Aragon Front except, it was noted, the communists, who withdrew resources and personnel from the fight. As those within the communist militia and party were at the mercy of the USSR – they received arms and financial backing – they were forced to obey the instruction of Stalin, who at the time was being disparaged by Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky had published damning critiques of Stalin and the USSR since fleeing the country. Voicing his concerns about Stalin had sealed his fate, and those operating under his name were also targeted. Trotsky’s dissent forced Stalin to renounce him as a traitor, a fascist spy in the pay of obscure fascistic organisations. This isolated Trotsky and his followers, and he paid the ultimate price for his polemic in Mexico in 1940. Alas, any organisation – such as the POUM – was marked by the USSR.


The conditions at the front were abhorrent, Orwell says, the fighting was sporadic and his motivation for being there waned. But it was the campaign launched by the communists which should have greatly appalled him. His party, and the militia he fought with, was used as a scapegoat by the communists when they took greater control within Republican ranks. Men and women who he had fought alongside on the Aragon Front were imprisoned en masse when they returned from the front. The communists needed to quell the POUM, and they were vilified and outlawed after performing heroically against a better equipped army.

It’s difficult to understand the extent of the anger and frustration Orwell felt during his time in Spain. He described being horrified by the lack of professional soldiers within the ranks of the POUM; most of them were regular young men who were trained for several days, some given old weapons, very little ammunition and sent to the front to die. His exasperation was apparent, but even so he writes neutrally and without much emotion.

The description of these events by Orwell, which are described without jargon or obfuscation, drove me indignant with rage. But to him, it seemed, this was the fatuity of the war; it merely greatly exasperated him. He remarked that he travelled to fight in Spain as an anti-fascist. His reason: common decency. But war is rarely as simple as it appears.

The Bullet

I knew before I began the book that he received a bullet through the throat and I anxiously awaited the moment in the book, as if anticipating a thrilling tale. But Orwell being Orwell there was no crescendo. The moment occurs suddenly, much like it would in real life, without any premonitory musings. He could have embellished and exaggerated the incident, but all in all it takes up just four or so pages in approximately 230, disregarding the narrative concerning his rehabilitation. He received a bullet through the throat which missed his artery and only grazed his vocal chords (he spoke with a slight rasp until his death). It also missed his spinal chord, exiting through the back of his neck past his shoulder blades.

In his own words: “I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.


“The American sentry I had been talking to had started forward. ‘Gosh! Are you hit?’ People gathered round. There was the usual fuss–‘Lift him up! Where’s he hit? Get his shirt open!’ etc., etc. The American called for a knife to cut my shirt open. I knew that there was one in my pocket and tried to get it out, but discovered that my right arm was paralyzed. Not being in pain, I felt a vague satisfaction. This ought to please my wife, I thought; she had always wanted me to be wounded, which would save me from being killed when the great battle came.

“It was only now that it occurred to me to wonder where I was hit, and how badly; I could feel nothing, but I was conscious that the bullet had struck me somewhere in the front of the body. When I tried to speak I found that I had no voice, only a faint squeak, but at the second attempt I managed to ask where I was hit. In the throat, they said. Harry Webb, our stretcher-bearer, had brought a bandage and one of the little bottles of alcohol they gave us for field-dressings. As they lifted me up a lot of blood poured out of my mouth, and I heard a Spaniard behind me say that the bullet had gone clean through my neck. I felt the alcohol, which at ordinary times would sting like the devil, splash on to the wound as a pleasant coolness.

“They laid me down again while somebody fetched a stretcher. As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was done for. I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it. The blood was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. ‘The artery’s gone,’ I thought. I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry. There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed. And that too was interesting–I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time.

“My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well. I had time to feel this very vividly. The stupid mischance infuriated me. The meaninglessness of it! To be bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment’s carelessness! I thought, too, of the man who had shot me– wondered what he was like, whether he was a Spaniard or a foreigner, whether he knew he had got me, and so forth. I could not feel any resentment against him. I reflected that as he was a Fascist I would have killed him if I could, but that if he had been taken prisoner and brought before me at this moment I would merely have congratulated him on his good shooting.”

His account of the incident is devoid of any grand ideas, any egotistical meanderings, which may have seemed to him to be pretentious. What is striking about Orwell’s account is the utter fatuity he felt immediately after realising he’d been shot. He says he thought about the meaninglessness of his demise, which he was certain was going to occur in the excrement-filled trenches on the Aragon Front. He illustrates his dismay and disgust at the military situation where he was stationed, and it is safe to say he would have considered his death there during a time of reasonable inaction as entirely ignoble.

Considering his contribution to the world of literature and journalism, limited it is true to say at this point, some may attribute a providential element to his survival. He would go on to write several imperishable novels which would shape our understanding of totalitarianism in the 20th century and contribute many important essays and books before his death. His description of the shooting and subsequent survival do not contain a trace that, as he survived where many hadn’t, he considered this miraculous; he was merely very fortunate where many before him weren’t. Those who write about their experience of war often do so in a grandiose manner. Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon that all bad writers are in love with the epic.

Orwell’s unfailing ability to write clearly was his main virtue. In Homage, it is the chief virtue. Communism in Spain, he wrote, was not to be viewed as the extreme left. Instead it inhabits a position on the extreme right, and Orwell understood this irony. Homage was his first attempt at criticising the USSR’s policy and Stalin himself. The communists were the anti-revolutionaries who actively impeded the revolutionary fervour of their socialist allies in the fight against fascism. They had the backing of the middle classes, isolated as they were by the socialists and anarchists. He recognised that the communist ‘line’ much depended also on France’s position on the Spanish Civil War. France, Stalin’s ally, was averse to a revolutionary neighbour and was alarmed at the possible liberation of Spanish Morocco, this at a time when Hitler was an increasing concern. Orwell understood perfectly that communist parties which existed in the pay of Stalin and the USSR had to answer to Moscow.

“In reality”, he wrote, “it was the communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain.”

They stifled any suggestion of revolution during the war under the pretext that it distracted against the fight against Franco. Anarchists and socialists to a lesser extent believed there could be no defeat of Franco unless a revolution was pursued. On paper the communist line seemed pragmatic, but it was a cover for the reintroduction of a class system and the rediscovery of capitalism. The POUM line was that the only defence against fascism was workers’ control which the communists had abolished when they gained power. The communist parties in the pay of the USSR were international pawns to be used by Stalin to further advance his own aims, which were almost always at odds with respective domestic agendas. This was how Stalin maintained a powerful standing internationally. Orwell drew attention to this earlier than most. They were content to abandon communist ideology in return for arms and other support from the USSR. And they were able to isolate groups such as the POUM by slandering them as disguised fascist, which consolidated their own power and crushed any revolutionary expectations, both of which were important for the USSR, but not necessarily in Spain’s best interest.

Spain and Syria: Similar conflicts, similar outcomes?

Orwell’s account of the war struck me as very familiar. Many aspects of it seemed to me to be similar to the current war in Syria.

Young members of the Free Syrian Army show off their weapons, araquib city

Both conflicts became part of a wider geopolitical tussle. Assad and Franco both benefitted from the inheritance of a fully trained army with extensive access to far superior resources than their opponents. However, foreign involvement in both wars has tilted the balance of power in the direction of the nationalistic forces.

In Spain, the involvement of Italy and Germany helped Franco annihilate the republican government and its militias. In Syria, Iran and Russia have supplied air and ground support for Assad. These proxy fighting forces, such as Hezbollah and various Iraqi Shia militias among others, have done much of the heavy lifting in the last three years in Syria. Similarly, within Franco’s force were Italian, German, Portuguese and Moroccan contingents. The advantage of aerial attacks also benefitted Assad and Franco hugely.

Russia Syrian Game

Like Franco before him, Assad’s reliance on Russian and Syrian air strikes has been one of the deciding factors of the conflict in the past two years. Russian involvement has effectively overturned a stalemate, and the bombardment of Aleppo and the subsequent retreat of rebel forces confirms this.

Sufficient disagreement led to infighting among the Republicans which weakened them. A similar occurrence has fractured the Free Syrian Army. The most intense fighting was over major industrial and commercial cities; Madrid and Barcelona, and Damascus and Aleppo. Thousands of people from Europe and the United States poured into Spain to fight with the Republicans. Similarly, thousands of people from around the world have been drawn to Syria. There are discrepant religious and politically ideological reasons for this, however.


Researchers Laia Balcells of Duke University and Stathis Kalyvas of Yale describe the similarities between the wars as they became focal points for opposing ideologies and how the outcome of the Spanish Civil War was swayed by external assistance.

“Just before World War II, the Spanish Civil War became a focal conflict in Europe, the ideological and military battleground where fascist and anti-fascist forces clashed while the entire world stared. Today, Syria has become the key battleground of Sunni and Shiite ideologues and activists. The stark ideological dimension of the Spanish Civil War was expressed in extensive external support by foreign powers and massive participation in combat by foreign volunteers.


“The decisive assistance provided to the Republican camp by the USSR — which turned out to be much more substantial compared to the limited Anglo-French assistance — led to the centralization of the highly fragmented Republican camp, but also its eventual domination by the communists; however, this came too late to counterbalance the massive assistance offered to the Nationalists, on both ground and air, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy — and which eventually helped tip the balance in favor of the Nationalist rebels.

“The ideological dimension of the Spanish conflict had a clear geopolitical stake, the domination of Europe, very much like the ideological dimension of the Syrian civil war overlaps with a geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the domination of the Arab world. Lastly, the Spanish Civil War witnessed intense violence on the battlefield, widespread atrocities against the civilian population, and mass displacement — all related to extensive political polarization (Balcells 2010). Unlike Spain, where this polarization was associated to ideological identities, the violence in Syria is connected to sectarian identities.”

We can see that external assistance was the deciding factor in the Spanish Civil War, and in Syria history it is likely that history will repeat itself.

Orwell’s lament

Orwell admitted initially the political landscape bored him because he believed the Spanish Civil War was solely being fought on the basis Franco be defeated. It was thoroughly disheartening to him that it turned out to be much more and much less about fighting fascism. His sojourn into war-torn Spain illustrated his unfailing dedication to mankind, however. It also signals the beginning of his anti-totalitarianism. Homage is the precursor to Animal Farm and 1984. And without Orwell’s experience in Spain we probably would not have had either.


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