Archived Reading Room

Lessons of war: Learning from the Spanish Civil War – the only time in history when Anarchists came to power

By Michael Beadle

It’s no secret the “War in Iraq” is not going well.

Even the most optimistic reports show the continuing violence as suicide bombers attack civilians and Iraqi military after the country’s historic constitutional referendum.

Last month, Amr Mussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League of States, said in a BBC radio interview, “This situation is so tense there is a threat looming in the air about civil war that could erupt at any moment, although some people would say it is already there.”

An Iraqi Civil War. It’s not something the Bush administration — or leaders in Europe or the Middle East — would like to acknowledge at this point, but the elements are all there. A destabilized central government, arguing ethnic and religious factions, foreign military invaders, and special interests jockeying for those prized oil fields. You have separatist Kurds in the north, disenfranchised Sunnis and newly empowered Shiites. Among those three major factions, there are many more voices within Iraq clamoring to be heard. You have a well-financed terrorist network fueling an insurgency and billions more in military spending pouring in from Britain and the U.S. All the money, weapons, opportunism, and fanaticism for a messy civil war.

So how does a country descend into the chaos of civil war? How does one defuse an atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion? Is it a problem of too many foreigners — U.S. military, al-Qaeda, foreign investors, etc. — interfering with a single nation? Are ethnic or class differences unresolvable? Is civil war inevitable in the life of a country?

Now is a good time to read George Orwell’s masterful study of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Homage to Catalonia, which takes readers into the trenches and front lines of northern Spain and gives a first-hand account of how complicated war becomes, disillusioning even the most eager of soldiers.

While Orwell is perhaps best known for his warnings about the dangers of oppressive government in 1984 and Animal Farm, his earlier work in Homage to Catalonia is a brilliant mix of war reporting, dark humor and sharp commentary. He writes about a war that would test the military machines of Hitler and Mussolini in the years leading up to World War II. Tens of thousands of German and Italian troops took part in the Spanish Civil War, but at the same time, British and Russian brigades came to support Spain’s government. It’s almost as though Spain became a chessboard with foreign leaders acting as the opposing sides. One tends to think of civil wars as internal conflicts within a country, but in fact they are often greatly influenced by foreign intervention — as with the current situation in Iraq.

The danger in comparing the Spanish Civil War to any other civil war in history is that each war comes with its own rationale, its own leaders, its own causes and effects. While it may not be fair to draw conclusions that Iraq’s situation is like Spain’s in the 1930s, it is interesting to note that just before civil war broke out, Spain held its first “democratic” elections in 60 years. There was a feeling among the Spanish that after the autocratic rule of King Alfonso XIII, a better government could be elected to serve the people. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. When a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Republican Unionists took power away from the wealthy and military elite, Spanish army leaders planned a military coup, and civil war broke out in July 1936.

So what might be some of the lessons learned from the Spanish Civil War?

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell explores the dangers of foreign intervention and the misinformation that came swirling from outsiders who thought they knew what was best for Spain. For example, Communist Russia exerted a great influence over Spain’s political and military landscape when $500 million in gold reserves went to the Soviet Union in exchange for military aid from the Russians. Not surprisingly, Communists wound up in key cabinet positions calling the shots while other opposition party leaders were assassinated, blocked from government positions, or fingered as scapegoats when mistakes were made.

In addition to its complexity — so many factions, so many mixed agendas — the Spanish Civil War also holds the curious distinction as being the only time in history when Anarchists actually took power and were appointed to major cabinet positions in government. When Spain’s rule changed from a monarchy to a republic, a class war erupted. The institutions of the Catholic Church and rich aristocracy clashed with trade unions, Socialists, Anarchists and Communists who wanted to spread the wealth and reform society. But the Spanish Communists, influenced by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, wanted a stable Spain to secure foreign investments, and argued with Anarchists, Socialists and others who wanted a social revolution where titles could be done away with and people could be treated with equality.

In short, there were civil wars within this civil war.

Homage to Catalonia begins with Orwell enlisting with the Popular Army, a collection of Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, trade unionists and anti-Fascists who fought against General Franco and the Nationalist Army that tried to take control of the Republic. (Why does that sound curiously like a Star Wars plot?) Like Orwell, there were thousands of Spanish Republican sympathizers who came to Spain to fight the big, bad Fascists.

However, this war wasn’t so simple as “us versus them,” and Orwell openly admits to how misinformed he and the world’s media were about the situation in Spain. Enduring boredom, the cold, lice, rats, defective guns, lack of ammunition, lack of sleep and hospital nurses who would steal soldiers’ possessions, Orwell wonders what he’s fighting for when orders get botched and the P.O.U.M. Socialist Army he’s fighting with comes under a propaganda attack from Communists who are supposed to be on the same side.

It all comes to a head in Barcelona, strategically a key northern city in Spain, which savored its autonomous status. Orwell is on leave recuperating from a war wound when he discovers a subversive plot. Leftist groups that were thought to be on the same side wind up fighting against each other. Republican guards are ordered in, a riot breaks out, key Anarchist leaders are assassinated in their homes, hundreds are killed, and the Communists somehow end up gaining more power in the Republican government. Opposition groups (including Orwell’s P.O.U.M.) become scapegoats for the Barcelona fiasco. One can begin to see where the seeds of resentment toward Communism come from as Orwell and his wife race for their lives to get out of the country.

They escape, of course, and through it all you trust Orwell as he wades through the rumors, party slogans, propaganda and social rituals of a country that cannot be saved. He distills the truth as it appears harder to come by in war than cigarettes.

Perhaps the best message of Orwell’s story is “Don’t believe the hype.” There is no clear good-versus-evil conflict in war as politicians or generals would lead the public to believe. Orwell learns this the hard way, enlisting as a soldier with the best of intentions, only to learn that the government he’s been fighting for has turned against him. Having truth on your side doesn’t make you any safer in a civil war, he explains. It makes you a target.

If only we could have Orwell to cut through the misinformation, suspicions and power struggles now swirling in Iraq.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.
Harvest/HBJ Books, 1969. 264 pages.


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