In the last days of 1936, Spain was five months into a bitter civil war, in which volunteers from many countries were helping the elected government of the Spanish Republic battle a military coup led by General Francisco Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Some foreigners flocking to Spain, though, had come for another reason as well: the northeast part of the country, particularly Catalonia, was in the midst of the most far-reaching social revolution ever seen in Western Europe.
Workers had taken over factories and peasants the large estates; waiters were running restaurants and trolley drivers the transport systems. Municipal garbage trucks carried anarchist slogans. Hundreds of idealistic visitors wanted to take part in a revolution that came not, as in Stalin’s Russia, from the top down, but from the bottom up. In Barcelona, a young American economist named Charles Orr was working for the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), or Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification—an independent leftist group with its own militia at the front.
“A little militiaman, in his blue coveralls and red scarf, trudged up the stairs to my office on the fourth floor,” remembered Orr later.
The lifts, as usual, bore the familiar sign NO FUNCIONA…
There was an Englishman, he reported to me, who spoke neither Catalan nor Spanish…. I went down to see who this Englishman was and what his business might be.
There I met him—Eric Blair—tall, lanky and tired, having just that hour arrived from London….
Exhausted, but excited, after a day and a night on the train, he had come to fight fascism…. At first, I did not take this English volunteer very seriously. Just one more foreigner come to help…apparently a political innocent.
The newcomer spoke of a book he had written, about living as a tramp in England and washing dishes in Paris restaurants. But Orr had not heard of this or of the several novels this “gawky, stammering adventurer” said he had published.
“To us he was just Eric…one of a small band of foreigners, mostly British, fighting on the Aragon Front.” This was where Blair would be sent, west of Barcelona, when he promptly joined the POUM militia. “He was tongue-tied, stammered and seemed to be afraid of people,” Orr wrote. But however inhibited he was in conversation, he was anything but that in print, where he wrote under the name of George Orwell.
Like Orr, few people anywhere had then heard of the thirty-three-year-old author, who had been supporting himself largely as a part-time bookstore clerk and by running a small grocery shop out of his home. He had finished the book that would first bring him wide notice, The Road to Wigan Pier, but it had not yet appeared.
Like a number of foreigners with whom he crossed paths in Barcelona—one was a young German named Willy Brandt—Orwell quickly found himself under the spell of the revolutionary city:
Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said “Señor” or “Don” or even “Usted”; everyone called everyone else “Comrade” and “Thou”…. Tipping had been forbidden by law…almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from an hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy…. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud…. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.
Within a week, Orwell was on his way to the front. The book he would write about the following six months, Homage to Catalonia, is the one in which for the first time he fully found his voice. In 1940 he referred to it as his “best book,” and for many of us that judgment still holds, even though the novels he wrote subsequently, Animal Farm and 1984, would be more famous. This year marks Homage’s seventy-fifth anniversary, and the book merits a fresh look: at its brilliance and its flaws; at an eerie backstory that Orwell only dimly sensed; and at the odd way his explicit revisions were, for decades after his death, ignored.
In Spain, Orwell never for a moment stopped observing himself and everything around him: Who can forget his extraordinary description of exactly what it feels like to be hit by a bullet? (“The sensation of being at the centre of an explosion.”) Yet he also managed to write in the first person without ever sounding self-centered. You can open Homage at almost any page and see how he deftly amasses rich, sensory detail, but always in the service of a larger point. For example, after that sniper’s shot almost severed his carotid artery, he was put on a hospital train to the rear. As it pulled into one station, a troop train filled with Italian volunteers was pulling out for the front,
packed to the bursting-point with men, with field-guns lashed on the open trucks [flatcars] and more men clustering round the guns. I remember with peculiar vividness the spectacle of that train passing in the yellow evening light; window after window full of dark, smiling faces, the long tilted barrels of the guns, the scarlet scarves fluttering—all this gliding slowly past us against a turquoise-coloured sea….
The men who were well enough to stand had moved across the carriage to cheer the Italians as they went past. A crutch waved out of the window; bandaged forearms made the Red Salute. It was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one’s heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.
But within the Spanish civil war was another civil war. Inside the Republic, a peculiar alliance of mainstream parties and Communists was eager to crush Catalonia’s social revolution. Some of their reasons were understandable—they feared the Western democracies would never sell arms to a Republican Spain they saw as revolutionary. But some were not. Soviet officials and Spanish Communists were working hard to gain influence, particularly over the Republic’s military and police. One major aim was to carry out a local version of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which any dissenters from the world Communist movement were branded traitors. In Spain, a principal Soviet target was the vigorously anti-Stalinist POUM.
Orwell first became fully aware of this when, in late April 1937, he returned to Barcelona on leave. Within a few days, he was unexpectedly caught up in a deadly outburst of street fighting between the Communist-dominated police on one side and the POUM and its anarchist allies on the other. Several hundred people were killed. Deeply distressed, he returned to the front line. Some weeks later, after being wounded, hospitalized, and discharged, he came back to Barcelona one last time, to meet his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair, who had come from England to work in the POUM office, and to head home with her to recuperate. It was then that he discovered that the POUM and its newspaper had been banned by the Republican government, and many of its supporters thrown in jail. He stayed out of sight for several days while he and Eileen arranged to slip out of the country before they, too, could be arrested.
She told him how, several days before, six plainclothes police had burst into her room and taken all the couple’s letters, books, and documents, including the diaries Orwell had kept during his first four months at the front. These must have been a particularly painful loss. Yet even in describing this theft of his own writing, Orwell was alert to a curious human detail:
They sounded the walls, took up the mats, examined the floor, felt the curtains, probed under the bath and the radiator, emptied every drawer and suitcase and felt every garment and held it up to the light…. In one drawer there was a number of packets of cigarette papers. They picked each packet to pieces and examined each paper separately, in case there should be messages written on them. Altogether they were on the job for nearly two hours. Yet all this time they never searched the bed. My wife was lying in bed all the while; obviously there might have been half a dozen sub-machine-guns under the mattress, not to mention a library of Trotskyist documents under the pillow. Yet the detectives made no move to touch the bed, never even looked underneath it…. The police were almost entirely under Communist control, and these men were probably Communist Party members themselves. But they were also Spaniards, and to turn a woman out of bed was a little too much for them.
During these last two brief visits to Barcelona, Orwell wrote, “You seemed to spend all your time holding whispered conversations in corners of cafés and wondering whether that person at the next table was a police spy.”1
Sometimes, that person was a spy, and today we can read Homage side-by-side with these agents’ reports. The USSR was the only major country willing to sell arms to the Republic, and these and the Communist-organized International Brigades helped save Madrid from Franco in 1936 and made a valuable contribution in several other battles. But Stalin’s emissaries and secret agents were doing what they could to gain Soviet control over the Republic’s forces and policies, and they often succeeded. For more than half a century, all their records were tightly locked up, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union some became accessible, and they make fascinating reading.2
Some documents, including the actual papers removed from Eileen Blair’s room, are believed to still be in closed files in Moscow. But among what we can now see is a two-page inventory of what the police took that day. This includes such items as “correspondence exchanged between Eileen and Eric BLAIR,” “correspondence of G. ORWELL (alias Eric BLAIR) concerning his book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier,’” “checkbook for the months of October and Nov 1936.” There were also letters to and from a long list of people, and “various papers with drawings and doodles.”
For some items, the English originals have disappeared and the only version on file is in German. These translations were evidently done by or for Germans involved in running Soviet espionage in Barcelona. David Crook, a British Communist agent, claims in his memoirs that during the long Spanish lunch-and-siesta, he used to slip into the office used by Eileen and the handful of other Britons and Americans with the POUM, steal documents, and quickly photograph them at a Soviet safe house occupied by “a middle-aged German couple, Gertrude and Anatol.” Gertrude and Anatol, whoever they were, presumably were reporting directly to Moscow.
1 Unknown to Orwell, he was also under surveillance before and after his time in Spain by his own government’s counterintelligence. One 1942 report, ironically, describes him as holding “advanced communist views.” See “Odd Clothes and Unorthodox Views—Why MI 5 Spied on Orwell for a Decade,” The Guardian, September 3, 2007. ↩
2 Most of these records are at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Recent History ( RGASPI ) in Moscow. Nearly two hundred reels of microfilm copies are held at the Tamiment Library at New York University, where I consulted them. Although none specifically concerns Orwell, see also the many documents reprinted in Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov (Yale University Press, 2001). ↩
Unknown to Orwell, he was also under surveillance before and after his time in Spain by his own government’s counterintelligence. One 1942 report, ironically, describes him as holding “advanced communist views.” See “Odd Clothes and Unorthodox Views—Why MI 5 Spied on Orwell for a Decade,” The Guardian, September 3, 2007. ↩
Most of these records are at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Recent History ( RGASPI ) in Moscow. Nearly two hundred reels of microfilm copies are held at the Tamiment Library at New York University, where I consulted them. Although none specifically concerns Orwell, see also the many documents reprinted in Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov (Yale University Press, 2001). ↩