Saturday, March 08, 2008

Homage to Catalonia

I had a break from blogging the other week while enjoying sunshine (and rain) in Andalucía, Southern Spain. Okay, we actually stayed in the concrete seafront “British” colony that is Benalmadena Costa. Which wasn’t that great, but it was a good central base for getting around the province.

The rain did give me a chance to reread one of my all time favourite books, “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell. (Or by his real name Eric Blair – these Blair’s get about).

Orwell had volunteered to fight the Franco fascist rebellion against the socialist republican government in the Spanish civil War (1936-1939). He served on the front line for several months with a Catalonia militia which supported the revolutionary minded POUM movement.

It is a compelling story by an Eton educated former Burmese colonial policeman who travelled thousands of miles to voluntary take up arms, serve in often appalling conditions and risk his life for what he personally believed in not what his country wanted him to fight for.

The book works for me on a number of levels. It is a gripping account of the misery and squalor of 115 days of trench warfare (guess where George picked up his “Orwellian” hatred of rats). The description of an assault against an enemy strong point and the subsequent hand to hand combat is compelling.

He uniquely describes the role that lice have played in European combat over the ages. Countless generations of solders in famous battles have not only had to fight the enemy before them but at the same time the lice that were attacking their genitals! This is something most history books somehow fail to mention.

The book is also a political thriller. Despite risking his life for the Spanish republic and being shot in the neck by a fascist sniper “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail”. George was identified as a political enemy by the republican government and narrowly avoided arrest or even execution due to his association with the POUM. He had to go in hiding while still recovering from his wounds before he was able to escape out of the country.

It is also a first hand political history of an important period. In very simplistic terms the POUM were repressed by its own government because it was thought as being in favour of promoting "revolution" in Spain as the only means of defeating the fascists. While the mostly communist government believed that the defeat of the fascists was the overwhelming priority and this needed a poplar front rather than a revolution. As well as disciplined and well trained regular armies rather than "egalitarian" workers militias.

Would Cuba have survived as long as it has without its well trained and disciplined regular armed forces?

Orwell of course does not come out of things without being open to criticism. He describes some of his British compatriots serving with him as being “rift raff”? Which in the book he annoyingly does not explain or elaborate. This runs the risk of him being portrayed as a Eton snob?

I also wonder about his apparent “support” for workers “revolution”? Of course since the POUM and the Anarchists were suppressed by the government (mostly Communist), who then went on to eventually lose the War, it is tempting to think that perhaps a “revolution” might have enabled the republic to defeat the fascists. Personally, I think that the republican government was only able to survive as long as it did since it had a lot of mainstream support. From the majority of Spaniards who were neither communists nor revolutionaries.

I find it quite revealing that Orwell casually mentioned that he only saw a couple of un-vandalised churches while he was in Spain. Many churches were vandalised, destroyed or even used as toilets. While I can understand that many republicans were anti-clerical and that the Catholic Church in Spain had largely been an oppressive institution. I find it difficult to understand how sensitive, intelligent, educated people such as Orwell could not realise the fatal damage being done to their cause by such pointless and counter productive destruction of sacred Church property and by the fairly widespread indiscriminate murder of clergy? The fascists were able to gain widespread support due to this stupidity.

By co-incidence the only mention of southern Spain in the book was rather rude comments about the fall of Malaga to the fascists and about the fighting qualities of Andalucía republican militia. While ironically the only significant reference I saw to the civil war during my stay was during a visit to the impressive town of Ronda. Where during the war, republicans apparently threw hundreds of supposedly Franco supporters to their deaths from the top of the gorge that divides the town. Looking down that gorge it must have been a horrible death. Things don’t change; Hamas threw members of Fatah off the top of tower blocks last year when they took over Gaza.

Despite everything going to pieces, George did have optimism for the future even it this was based on somewhat usual circumstances. While he was on the run from the Communist republican secret police, they raided his wife’s hotel bedroom late at night. They searched the room from top to bottom and took away all his letters and war souvenirs however, because they were Spanish men, they were unable to ask his wife to get out of her bed and search the bed or even underneath it. Since he could have had many subversive documents or even arms under her bed, he felt that this was a sign that whatever happened Spain would not become a proper fascist state like Germany.

Finally, I enjoyed George's typically British sardonic comments on being constantly congratulated as being very “lucky” after surviving being shot in the neck by the sniper. He thought that it would have been luckier not to have been hit at all!


Anonymous said...

Educated just like Boris...well fancy that!

John Gray said...

Hi Anon

Actually, thinking about it, Boris is the perfect example of “riff raff”!