Homage to Spain

Douglas Johnson

  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
    Secker, 260 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 436 35028 9
  • The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas
    Hamish Hamilton, 1115 pp, £20.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 241 89450 6
  • The Triumph of Democracy in Spain by Paul Preston
    Methuen, 274 pp, £14.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 416 36350 4

Revolutions have frequently been analysed and categorised. Wars, and the art of war, have been carefully studied. But the category of civil wars has been neglected. Perhaps this is because they are difficult to recognise or to define. Should we continue to write about guerres franco-françaises, arising from the Paris Commune, the Resistance movements, or the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète formed by Algerian settlers, or should we think of them as civil wars? Often there is a reluctance to admit to the existence of civil wars as anything other than an accident or temporary aberration: many English historians have liked to play down the importance of the English Civil War and tell anecdotes about the way in which the two sides paused at the moment of battle so that a hunting party could pass between them, or, more philosophically, to ask whether the Civil War had any effect on English history at all. Civil wars can be dismissed as the terrorist activities of small groups of individuals whose aggressive intolerance or violent insistence upon their own identities causes them to reject, for as long as they can, the society that envelops them. Since the antagonists in civil wars invariably appeal to foreigners to come and assist them, the story of civil wars becomes embroiled in questions of invasion and of international relations, thus creating the sort of complexities which make historians impatient.

The great exception to these rules is the Spanish Civil War. It is appropriate that new editions of the two books that have probably most influenced our understanding of and feelings about this war should appear this year – the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s beginning. Homage to Catalonia is published as one of the first volumes of the complete works of George Orwell, for which the editor, Dr Peter Davison, uses Orwell’s original manuscripts, letters and proofs to establish the text that Orwell would have wished to have. In the case of this work, among the most personal and directly political of Orwell’s writings, he has made particular use of the correspondence which Orwell had with his French translator, Yvonne Davet, to whom he suggested both revisions of the text as first published in 1938 and a change in the chapter order, with Chapters Five and Eleven being relegated to appendices, on the grounds that they contained concentrated political analysis which interrupted the flow of Orwell’s narration.

Hugh Thomas’s book first appeared in 1961 and was then the first major historical study of the war, written at a time when no one in Spain could contemplate writing an objective study of any part of its modern history. With its revised editions of 1965 and 1976, it has long remained the basic historical work to which generations of historians have turned in order to study this difficult and controversial subject, although many distinguished studies of the subject have appeared since (by historians such as Paul Preston, Raymond Carr and Martin Blinkhorn, to mention three British examples).

My memories of Homage to Catalonia were not only of the fine, evocative writing, perhaps Orwell’s best, but of his enthusiasm for the people with whom he had lived and fought. If, for some people of my generation, the Spanish Civil War was the dominant episode of the pre-war years, much more important than the German occupation of the Rhineland, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia or the Japanese attack on Manchuria, it was, in large measure, because of this eloquent book. So far as I know, no one ran away from the Royal Grammar School, Lancaster, to fight in Spain (I can only remember a fifth-former who ran away to join the French Foreign Legion), and I cannot remember what the politicians or the Manchester Guardian said. But what Orwell wrote was inspiring. In Barcelona, the day before he joined the militia, he saw an Italian standing in front of the officers’ table. ‘Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend – the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist.’ Later Orwell comments on the incident: ‘Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again, and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.’ Barcelona was the first place where Orwell saw the working class ‘in the saddle’. This meant that waiters and shop-assistants looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. There was no tipping. The illiterate bought cheap ballads in the streets and painfully learned how to sing about proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini. Orwell defies anyone thrown, as he was, among the Catalan working class not to be struck by their essential decency and generosity. In the militia officers and men were equals, everyone from private to general drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes and mingled on terms of complete equality. ‘If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette you could do so and no one thought it curious.’ This was not all. Whereas the discipline of a bourgeois conscript army is based on fear, in the militias there was none of the bullying and abuse that characterises the normal military life. Initially, there was chaos, anyone who had British Army ideas was appalled by the sort of arguments that took place, but in the long run there was discipline and loyalty as well as camaraderie. The friendliness of the peasants towards the troops was astonishing, in spite of the fact that for many of them the war was burdensome and dismal. The village girls, Orwell tells us, were ‘splendid, vivid creatures with coal-black hair, a swinging walk, and a straight-forward man-to-man demeanour which was probably a by-product of the revolution’. In Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was seen as a racket pure and simple, and it was possible, he thought, that Christian belief had been replaced by Anarchism, which had a widespread influence and which contained a religious tinge.

Later, one was able to read similar accounts of the dignity and humanity of those who fought against Franco. André Malraux, in his novel l’Espoir, told how one of the planes in his squadron was brought down in the mountains, behind the Loyalist lines. There were no roads, only mule paths, and the entire population escorted the stretcher-bearers as they brought the wounded down the mountain. At one moment Malraux raised his eyes and saw a file of peasants extending from the top of the mountain to its base. It was, he said, the grandest image of fraternity that he had ever seen. More subtle is his account of the toys for the children of Madrid which had been heaped up in the bullring, for New Year’s Day, 1937. Just as the children were about to collect them there was a German air-raid. The toys were unharmed, but when the children returned to collect them, none of them chose the toy airplanes, which were left untouched.

Gerald Brenan, a shrewd observer, has written about the Civil War in Malaga, where he was living. He has recalled the strikes which marked the summer of 1936 and which threw business into turmoil and created fear and despondency amongst the middle class. But he was above all struck by the look of triumph on the faces of the workmen.

The men who drove the two-wheeled carts in the port stood sternly erect, holding onto their reins in the stance of Greek charioteers. Their proud, self-confident bearing showed that they already felt themselves the rulers of Malaga. Yet no one, however closely associated with the Right, was molested. The workers, when their day came, did not intend to injure their class enemies. All men were to be equal, and those who had previously lived in wealth and comfort would be taught how much happier they would be when they earned their bread like other people.

Are we to believe this? Are we to believe that there was warmth, humanity, generosity and civilisation on one side only? Was it not easier for foreign observers to admire a Catalan or an Asturian worker than it was to admire a Belfast ship-worker or a Roubaix textile-worker? It is easy to romanticise – and be drawn into – other people’s quarrels as an escape from the more intractable work to be done at home. This is the alienation of idealism.

But then Orwell did not find that the enthusiasm was either sustained or universal. When he returned to Barcelona after serving at the front he found a very different atmosphere. Class distinctions had been revived. The rich were eating well in restaurants and in working-class districts the queues for bread were getting longer. Above all, as waiters and shop-assistants cringed to their wealthy customers, the practice of tipping was, however furtively, coming back. Orwell was impressed by the small things of human relations. Perhaps it was a characteristic of the Thirties that people perceived the realities of social relations in terms of tipping or a shop assistant’s obsequiousness. Interrogated by a Republican officer who regarded him as suspect because he was associated with Anarchists and independent Communists, he was deeply moved when the officer shook hands with him in full view of the tale-bearers and agents provocateurs who were only too ready to denounce Orwell as a spy and enemy agent. Nowadays, too, historians are likely to believe that such trivia are significant. When in China, Auden and Isherwood could not accept that it was right that they should be able to ride in comfort because a man was pulling them in a rickshaw. I remember a man in the British Army who accepted everything about the Second World War except the rule that officers should be saluted, and who would go to extraordinary lengths and run the risk of all sorts of irritating punishments in order to avoid making a gesture which he associated with personal subservience. I can appreciate his attitude better today than I did at the time. Individual experiences never, of course, add up to the total collective experience: this is the conclusion which, in 1979, Ronald Fraser drew in his remarkable oral history of the Spanish Civil War, Blood of Spain.

If there was enthusiasm, there was enthusiasm on both sides. Incompetence, treachery, disagreement, heroism, cowardice, bewilderment are scattered through the many cultures of Spain, and the play of the contingent and the unforeseen is to be found in all histories of the Civil War. As Hugh Thomas put it, there were not two Spains, but two thousand. It was a war in which the quarrels of several generations were to find expression. It was not only individuals but whole towns which acted without constraint, as if they were outside society and history. If Orwell is guilty of special pleading, and he subsequently stated that he had presented a more favourable case for the revolutionary, anti-Stalinist POUM, (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) than he really believed, orthodox historians do not hesitate to do the same. One tells us that although atrocities were committed on both sides, the Republicans officially attempted to stop them while the rebels officially encouraged them. Another explains that the administrative bodies which the Republic set up to organise the redistribution of land were not really revolutionary (although how this can be measured is not explained). Several admit that the official Communists had a greater sense of reality, but they are only too eager to suppose that a war won by these Communists would have been totally unacceptable.

One is tempted to say that a civil war will only take place in a society which is not ready for revolution. In Spain, the programme, the political will and the class force for revolutionary change did not exist; and all the elements of the ruling class were still in a position to defend themselves. Spain, traditionally a country of civil wars and coups d’états, found itself the battlefield between those who were fighting for a revolution which could only exist in terms of heroism and rhetoric, and those who were fighting for a past that had never existed. Perhaps Orwell saw himself as a Flaubertian character, surrounded by tension and excitement, and quietly reading, and forgetting, a detective novel.

Hugh Thomas believes that it was because the Civil War had been carefully studied, because it was understood why the Republic had failed, and because it was understood that the responsibility for the conflict was not something that was easily decided, that the transition to democracy after the death of Franco proceeded so successfully. He may well be right. But this may be yet another example of how Spanish history has been used by outsiders as a means of expressing their own preoccupations: the Germans who had to flee from Hitler’s Germany believed that the way back to Berlin lay through Madrid; Orwell, when he left Spain and rediscovered a London where all the talk was of cricket scores and Royal weddings, wondered whether England would wake from its deep, deep sleep before it was jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

The victorious Franco claimed that he had abolished the 19th century. By this he meant that he had destroyed the liberal tradition which had, however imperfectly and unsuccessfully, provided the fundamental momentum of modern Spanish history. But as the dictator grew older, and fell into an ill-health that his doctors could not conceal indefinitely, people began to wonder whether liberalism might not be revived, and there was much speculation about the implications of the law of 1967, and other constitutional provisions which Franco had outlined. Whilst nobody imagined that another dictator could simply replace Franco and preserve the same system of government, most observers believed that power would either pass to some collegiate of colonels or to some authoritarian technocracy dominated by the dynamic young representatives of Opus Dei.

The story of what actually happened has now been told in a fine piece of narrative writing by Professor Paul Preston. His knowledge of the detail of how Spain moved from the uncertainties of a senile dictatorship to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and an acceptable socialist government is impressive, all the more so because it is controlled and economical. Spanish history is more complex than we tend to think of it as being, and, as Preston makes clear, a number of quite small things could have changed the course of events. Preston does not make the mistake of overemphasising the attempted military coup of 23 February 1981, when parliament was hijacked by rebel members of the Guardia Civil, although his account stresses the importance of the telephone (what would have happened if certain high-ranking officers had not been able to speak to each other in the course of that dramatic night?). The hinge of his story is the replacement of Carlos Arias Navarro by Adolfo Suarez in 1976. The Prime Minister, who was a hangover from Franco, played himself out: he was unable to deal with the liberal opposition, and equally unable either to please the military or to control them; his failures caused Francoist businessmen and technocrats to join the reformist camp. Even the fact that the King acted slowly, that he acted in collaboration with Dr Kissinger, and that he expressed his first public dissatisfaction with Arias in Newsweek, did not prevent the choice of Suarez as prime minister and the democratisation of the country.

Juan Carlos’s skill and dedication are frequently invoked, yet Preston concludes on a somewhat grudging note. ‘Spaniards too,’ he writes, ‘had much to be proud of in the person of Juan Carlos, a democratic king who had risked his life in the service of the Constitution.’ It is undoubtedly wise not to attribute all of Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy to the work of an individual who, in 1975, was totally lacking in democratic credentials, and who still stands for a certain élitism. But one wonders whether Professor Preston does not, in some ways, resent the fact that this unexpected success story centres on a monarch who owes his legitimacy solely to the laws of the Francoist state. Once again, the history of Spain provides writers with the opportunity of voicing their feelings and expressing their private preferences.