THINKERS AT WAR – George Orwell

6 mins read

Iain King examines the relationship between war and thought

george-orwell-bbcweb_opt‘All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.’
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 1938


Birth: 25 June 1903
Nationality: British (but born in India)
Politics: democratic-socialist
Profession: journalist and writer
Best known works: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Death: 21 January 1950 (from tuberculosis)

Orwell the writer

Alongside Shakespeare, Dickens, and Kafka, George Orwell is one of a tiny group of writers whose surname has become a household adjective: to describe something as ‘Orwellian’ is to associate it with the dystopian Big Brother imagined by the author in his best-selling novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

George Orwell’s writing was very much of its time: he came to prominence in the 1930s – as the British Empire was fraying, as economic pressures rocked societies around the world, and as ideologies began to threaten the fragile peace of Europe.

Much of his work is commentary – Animal Farm, for example, is an allegory about Soviet Russia, with Stalin and Trotsky caricatured as rival pigs. 1984 is a stark critique of totalitarian states; some contemporary writers suggest he correctly anticipated the surveillance culture of the internet age. Orwell also wrote extensively for newspapers, and wrote bitter non-fiction books about his experiences as a homeless person in Paris and London, and describing life in northern England.

Throughout his writing, George Orwell reminds us of the gulf between rhetoric and reality: he invites us to reject propaganda as hollow, and to treasure authenticity. Ironically, he did it all under a pseudonym: his real name was Eric Blair.

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War cost at least 200,000 combat deaths, and almost as many civilian casualties – including Europe’s first large-scale fatalities from air-raids.

Spanish politics was polarised long before the war. A military junta had ruled the country during the 1920s, but left-wing Republicans were elected to power in 1931. In July 1936, the army, backed by fascists, royalists, and other conservatives, tried to regain power in a coup, and succeeded in many of the more rural and traditional areas. But in most of the cities they failed, defeated by working-class revolutionary insurrections, and the country was divided in two.

Military action centred on San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Madrid. General Franco consolidated his power on the Nationalist side. But the Republicans were divided, with liberals, social-democrats, and Stalinists opposed by anarchists and socialists who wanted a revolutionary war to transform Spain.

This conflict – fought out mainly in Barcelona – was central to Orwell’s political response to his Spanish experience: Homage to Catalonia is in part an embittered denunciation of Stalinism’s counter-revolutionary role behind the Republican lines.
The Spanish Civil War was a people's war against fascism. Here, women fighters defend Alcazar in 1936.

Both sides sought outside help. There was plenty on offer. Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini backed Franco, as did Portugal: both supplied ammunition and logistical help. Nazi Germany went further, using Spain as a testing-ground for new weaponry and tactics; their use of Stuka aircraft to dive-bomb Guernica in 1937 became iconic.

Some Republicans – those aligned with the Communist Party – could draw on Soviet arms, although the quality of materiel from the USSR was inconsistent, and the supply-line tortuous. The Republicans were also backed by an ‘International Brigade’ of foreign volunteers (though Orwell himself fought in the POUM militia). Most arrived with high ideals; many were to be disillusioned.

The war lasted for almost three years, with Nationalists making creeping gains for much of the time, benefiting from better equipment, greater unity of purpose, and widespread use of terror.

The eventual outcome – a win for General Franco’s fascist regime, achieved in March 1939 with the capture of Madrid – emboldened Hitler, and primed Europe for the Second World War.

George Orwell – aka Eric Blair – spent half a year fighting in Spain. As a volunteer with the left-wing Republicans of Barcelona, he experienced revolutionary euphoria and the squalor of the trenches – before being badly wounded by a sniper.

By 1936, Orwell had published a couple of novels and chronicled his experiences as a homeless person in Paris and London, but was yet to find broad success as a writer. He was also becoming more involved in left-wing causes – so much so that Special Branch, the British government agency responsible for keeping revolutionaries in check, had started to monitor him. Both his writing and his politics drove him to Spain, and both would be transformed by his experiences in the country.

Arriving in Barcelona immediately after Christmas 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republic, though, as he acknowledged himself, he was naive about what that meant. There were three distinct factions opposing General Franco’s Nationalists in the city, and it was a quirk of fate which steered him toward the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity (usually known, from its Spanish initials, as the POUM). Orwell was soon stationed with them in a trench near Zaragoza. His first experience of combat was ducking when a bullet struck nearby.

In the Republican trenches

Throughout his first weeks of fighting, Orwell was continually shocked by the conditions: the lack of food and firewood despite the winter cold at high altitude; decrepit weaponry; scant munitions. Filth and smells are everywhere.

At one point, Private Orwell took part in an attack across no-man’s-land. In his trademark literary style – drawing out the irony in the mundane – he described how rifles and bombs failed, how they were not sure where they were going, how they crawled awkwardly on their stomachs, and how the whole affair became a fiasco. Later, he helped capture a fascist position, which they scavenged for guns and ammunition before leaving.

But while the physical details depressed him, he was enlivened by the politics. He noted the spirit of the militia with which he served, and surmised their discipline was rooted in ‘revolutionary consciousness’ rather than mindless drills or training. He also believed that the squalor of the trenches had helped to cleanse Spanish society of its class divisions.

Revolutionary Barcelona

After 115 days at the front, Orwell took a short break in Barcelona. It was here – while recovering from the trenches – that he really found his enemy: not the fascists, but other Republicans.

Communists affiliated with Stalin were cracking down on the POUM, alongside whom Orwell had been fighting. The revolutionary fervour Orwell had experienced in the city at Christmas was gone, replaced by suspicion and ‘prowling gangs’. Orwell’s loyalty to his comrades-in-arms, which was as much personal as political, drove him to sit on the high roof of a cinema for as long as he could manage without food, ready to shoot a Communist – though he never actually did so.

The POUM was defeated and consigned to a subordinate role. Orwell returned to the front. But he was not there for long. Soon after dawn on a bright May morning, a sniper sent a 7mm bullet into his throat, only just missing his main artery. The sensation was ‘of being in the centre of an explosion’, he wrote.

He was immediately sent to a hospital, although it was more than a week before he got proper medical treatment.

Back in Barcelona, the POUM had been outlawed by the Stalinists. Orwell spent a night sleeping in a church to avoid arrest, and, after a failed effort to get some imprisoned friends set free, he left the country by train.

Homage to Catalonia

Orwell wrote about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938. It is essentially a book-length war diary. Unlike some in the genre, Orwell does not do bravado – if anything, he underplays his role, and dwells on his own foibles and frailties. He switches between writing as an observer and as a participant and back again, as if he has to keep stepping outside his situation to recognise the absurdity of it.

Throughout, he forces the reader to accept his account as entirely authentic. Orwell then deploys that authenticity to make a political point: in favour of the ‘ordinary’ militiaman, against the faraway propagandist, and most of all against the Communists, whose demand for ‘discipline’, he argues, snuffs out the humanity and purpose of the revolution.

Although Orwell’s battle with General Franco’s men ended when a sniper came within a bullet’s width of his jugular, his battle against the Communists was just beginning. They indicted him for high treason and espionage three weeks after he fled Spain – accusing him and the Marxists of being in league with Franco.

Orwell fought back with books: after Homage, he wrote Animal Farm, a satirical novella on the betrayal and destruction of the Russian Revolution by Stalin, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, his most famous work, a grim, pessimistic, dystopian depiction of totalitarianism.

Both novels pilloried the Stalinists. His words – dry, informed, engrossing – easily outgunned the propaganda of his enemies. It was a victory for the spirit of the revolution, long after the revolution itself had been lost.

Orwell Quotes

‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’

‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.’

‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’

‘If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.’

‘Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary commonsense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, “he that is not with me is against me”.’

1 Comment

  1. Mr. King:
    I enjoyed reading this article and appreciate the historical accuracy it seems to present. The “seems” speaks only of my personal ignorance of the details of George Orwell’s life and all his writing, no denigration of your piece at all. It is with your research effort in mind, that I wonder if you have the specific sources for the Orwell quotes. I am trying to research the origin of ‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.’, but have not yet found a printed source. Would you know if it came from some source than his books?

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