George Orwell’s writing on mass surveillance has left an enduring legacy. Now it has emerged that the author was himself spied on during the Spanish Civil War.

The author of Nineteen Eighty-Four – whose real name was Eric Blair – and his wife Eileen were put under observation by Communist military intelligence in May 1937, when an internal conflict broke out within the Republican side.

A colourised image of Orwell c.1940.
A colourised image of Orwell c.1940.

The revelations appear in a new book, The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom, and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Tremlett. During his research, Tremlett uncovered reports lodged in a Moscow archive detailing the couple’s actions.

The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 when an uprising led by General Francisco Franco attempted to bring down the country’s democratically elected-Republican government. The conflict, which continued until Franco’s victory in 1939, became a proxy war in which competing European powers, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, funded rival sides.

Political activists and intellectuals from across the world, such as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Arthur Koestler, travelled to Spain to fight against Franco’s forces.

However, the Republican side was riven with splits. Orwell was refused entry into the Communist-dominated International Brigades, instead
joining a smaller group, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).

Along with anarchist forces, the POUM eventually found themselves fighting Republican government forces in Barcelona in May 1937, as the rival factions disputed Spain’s future following the war.

As such, internecine surveillance was rife. Reports on POUM members were drawn up by the International Brigades’ military intelligence service, which ultimately answered to Moscow.

Their spies had become aware that Orwell’s wife Eileen was in an ‘intimate relationship’ with her husband’s own military commander, the Belgian Georges Kopp. While working in Barcelona, Eileen sent Kopp ‘food, books, newspapers etc… to him in jail’, while Orwell himself was at the front in Aragon.

It was there, in 1937, where Orwell was shot through the throat, although he survived and later escaped to Britain with his wife. The following year, he published Homage to Catalonia, an account of his experiences at war as well as the growing disputes within the Republican side.

His experiences in the country also shaped his anti-totalitarian novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which made him globally renowned. He died of tuberculosis in 1950.

You can read more about Orwell’s experiences in Spain here.

This is an article from the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.




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