George Orwell arrives in Barcelona in December 1936 to fight in the Spanish Civil War. At the barracks where he is going to join a leftwing militia known as The Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (or the POUM), he meets a militiaman standing at the officers’ table and is immediately impressed by him. He admires the man’s build but, more powerfully, the impression he gives, which is a strange combination of violence and kindness. As Orwell watches the man examine a map, he realizes that he must be illiterate. Suddenly, the man looks up at Orwell. Both of them say only a few words, but they discover that they are both foreigners: while Orwell is English, this fighter is Italian. Without being able to explain why, Orwell is deeply moved by this exchange. He feels a sense of tenderness for this complete stranger. After a few minutes, the man leaves the room and Orwell is left with a warm feeling of comfort and intimacy.
The story opens with an anecdote that draws the reader into the action from the very beginning. In describing the mysterious nature of his conversation with this stranger, Orwell touches on their shared status as foreigners, his immediate fondness for the man, and his curiosity about where the man might be from—all of which conveys the sense of awe that Orwell was feeling at being thrown in an entirely new world. Like Orwell, the reader is meant to be intrigued and eager to discover what the greater context for this interaction might be. Orwell’s focus on a conversation that only lasted a few seconds also introduces the idea that, in the war, people come and go unpredictably, but lasting impressions can be made in a matter of seconds.
Reflecting on this anecdote, Orwell mentions that he is writing this book more than seven months after the events have taken place. He mentions this Italian militiaman, he explains, because the man’s appearance, unkempt but fierce, encapsulates what he perceives as the general atmosphere of that time. It reminds him of many particular sights and sensations he experienced in his early days in Spain: the red flags in the city, the troops of young soldiers taking the train to the front, and the rough living conditions in the trenches.
Orwell provides a brief contextualization of himself as a writer, informing the reader that the story that he is about to tell is based on memory and personal experience. It is not an objective historical essay but, rather, an impressionistic account of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell’s emphasis on sensations, including the city’s sights and sounds, highlights the fact that the story of this war, for him, is made up of vivid emotions and memories. The red flags evoke the political vibrancy that the Spanish revolution generated.
As he considers this period of his life, Orwell describes the context of his involvement in the war. While he initially believed he would serve as a journalist in Spain, he soon decided to join the militia because, in the context of the war, it seemed to be “the only conceivable thing to do.”
Orwell attaches moral significance to the war, arguing that his decision to become involved needs no explanation. In doing so, he implies that fighting in the war was an urgent moral obligation that any reasonable human being would be able to understand.
Upon his arrival in Barcelona, Orwell is overwhelmed by the revolutionary ebullience he witnesses there. It seems as though the entire city is under working class control. Buildings have been seized by workers and covered in red or red-and-black flags, churches have been demolished, shops collectivized, and everyone seems to treat each other as equals. People address each other in informal terms and, apart from a few women and foreigners, everyone is dressed in working-class clothing.
Orwell is surprised by the profound societal transformation that he witnesses in Barcelona, which changes his understanding of what the war is about. This surprise hints at the fact that what he had read in England about the war did not convey the true nature of the political dynamics unfolding on the ground.
This state of affairs makes a deep impression on Orwell. He believes that perfect social equality has been achieved in the city and, as a result, is convinced that his decision to fight in the war is a decision in support of a noble cause. In retrospect, however, he realizes that he was naïve to believe in these appearances. Not all members of the Barcelona bourgeoisie had disappeared or joined the workers’ side. Rather, many members of the upper class were merely disguising themselves in order to avoid acts of violence and retribution against the wealthy.
The social revolution in Barcelona is so unlike anything Orwell has ever witnessed that it makes a deep impression on him. It convinces him that it is possible for society to become a fairer, more equal place. Later, it becomes apparent that Orwell’s first impressions were influenced by his romantic view of the war as a moral struggle, meant to produce a better, more just society.
In addition, despite an exciting atmosphere of revolutionary zeal, Orwell sees Barcelona as a city suffering from “the evil atmosphere of war.” The town looks in poor condition and is experiencing shortages of many essential foods and goods, such as meat, milk, and coal. Nevertheless, to Orwell, the people seem satisfied with their lives. There is very little unemployment, the cost of living is low, and, in general, people are uplifted by their revolutionary ideals. They are filled with hope that the future will bring perfect equality and freedom.
Part of Orwell’s enthusiasm about the revolution can be understood in relation to the fact that, when he arrived in Barcelona, the revolution was in its early stages and people were still full of hope for radical social change. As the war wears on, the “revolutionary ideals” Orwell writes about will be thwarted by political infighting and resistance to radical social change on the part of those who benefit most from economic inequality (i.e., the rich).
Meanwhile, during these early days in the city, Orwell trains for military service at the Lenin Barracks. While he was initially told that he would be sent to the front the day after he arrived, he soon discovers that he will have to wait about a week for a new section of soldiers to be ready before they can all be sent off to battle together. Life in the Barracks is chaotic, as the militiamen have turned the once elegant place into a disorganized, dirty space, full of broken furniture and rotting food—a degraded state of affairs that Orwell considers one of the typical side effects of revolution.
During his time in the barracks, Orwell uncovers serious problems with the organization of the militia. He is shocked by a generalized lack of punctuality and by the militia’s lack of respect for its physical surroundings, attitudes which strike him as undignified and therefore unsuited to the noble cause for which they are fighting. The revolution, despite people’s idealistic view of it, is often more unsightly and disorderly than everyday life.
Such disorganization extends to war necessities. As is typical of Spain, Orwell notes, everything is achieved by fits and starts. Uniforms, which are only distributed gradually, barely fit a general model, as each piece of clothing is made of a different color or material. As a result, when Orwell sees the men from his militia column in uniform, he mockingly describes the sight as “an extraordinary-looking rabble.”
In its practical aspects, the war in Spain often appears ridiculous. Orwell cannot take the militia seriously, for there is nothing soldierly or organized about his fellow group of men. Rather, the entire situation at the barracks seems like a farce, a game in which men are merely playing at making war.
On Orwell’s second day, the recruits are provided with military “instruction.” With shock, Orwell discovers that most of his fellow soldiers are teenagers who hold passionate political views but have absolutely no real knowledge of war. In addition, as the POUM follows principles of social equality between members of all ranks, soldiers are allowed to speak out against any order they disagree with. Orwell is dismayed at this visible lack of discipline and, in general, by the militia’s blatant inexperience and disorganization. His disappointment extends to their military training. While he had been excited to learn how to use a machine-gun, he discovers, with great disappointment, that the recruits are given no weapons but, rather, are taught a useless marching drill. Later, Orwell realizes that the main reason for this was a severe shortage of rifles, which meant that no weapons were available for practice.
Lack of military experience is evident not only in the militia’s appearance, but also in the knowledge and capabilities of the men in the militia. However, beyond mere unpreparedness, Orwell realizes that there are political reasons for the militia’s inefficiency. The militia’s adherence to non-traditional principles of governance (such as social equality) creates a general impression of lack of discipline. Furthermore, militias such as the POUM do not have the same resources as a national army, so they are forced to make do with the few weapons they have. Thus, Orwell shows that successfully carrying out this revolutionary movement will be an uphill battle due to the lack of any concentration of political power in this time of upheaval.
After barely a few days, the militiamen—though still completely unprepared by Orwell’s standards—are paraded throughout the city. At the end of this exercise, the men all run to buy wine at a local grocer’s shop and Orwell is pleased to note that, in part because of his status as an Englishman, everyone is very friendly to him. However, he still feels dissatisfied with the military training they received and, in particular, with his lack of knowledge about machine guns. He pesters his lieutenant about this and is told that he will receive machine-gun instruction “mañana” (“tomorrow”). With no surprise to Orwell, that day never comes.
The soldiers’ parade through the city brings to light a stark contrast between the supposedly solemn, ceremonial nature of war and the carefree attitude of militiamen who only want to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life, such as drinking wine. Orwell’s insistence on receiving formal machine-gun training demonstrates that he is not yet used to such an attitude of nonchalance regarding war, and that he wishes the militia took the practical aspects of war more seriously.
During this period, Orwell struggles with the Spanish language. There is only one other Englishman in the Barracks, and Orwell has to carry a small dictionary with him when he wants to communicate with locals. Nevertheless, Orwell is surprised by the friendliness of his Spanish companions, and says that he would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than in other countries because of how easy it is to make friends. His companions prove to be generous, humble men who do not hesitate to offer Orwell their entire packs of cigarettes or to admit that other troops might be braver than them. Orwell believes that these behaviors are proofs of the material and spiritual generosity of the Catalan working class.
Orwell’s introduction to military life doubles as an immersion in a foreign culture. However limited his interactions with his fellow militiamen might be, he draws on these experiences to make broad generalizations about Spanish people. He does not seem aware that particular circumstances, such as the unique context of the war and his status as a foreigner, might color the behavior of the men around him. Rather, he assumes that the way his companions behave must be indicative of behavioral norms that extend throughout Spain’s culture.
Orwell remains fully aware of the deficiencies of the militia system and of the Spanish culture. He reflects on his experience at the front line, where he was exasperated, to the point of fury, by the Spaniards’ inefficiency. His companions constantly postponed pressing matters to the next day, invoking the word “mañana,” and were terribly unpunctual, even in battle. “The Spaniards are good at many things,” Orwell concludes, “but not at making war.”
Perhaps in an effort to appear more objective, Orwell suggests that his excitement at discovering this new culture does not keep him from being honest about the problems he witnesses in the militia. However, once again, he generalizes about Spanish behavior and believes that the problems he identifies in the militia are typical of the entire nation.
Suddenly, in the Barracks, at two hours’ notice, Orwell’s company is ordered to the front. Orwell has to be shown how to put on his cartridge-box by the Spanish wife of a fellow Englishman named Williams. Meanwhile, preparations are so disorganized that some men leave for the front without their equipment. Nevertheless, the men’s departure is filled with excitement. Following a political speech in Catalan and a march throughout the town filled with shouting, the playing of revolutionary tunes, and the waving of red and red-and-black flags, the men are finally packed tight into a train, which slowly crawls out of the city.
The mix of excitement and disorganization that Orwell witnesses is typical of his experience in the militia. It brings to light a problematic gap between political passion and military effectiveness. Orwell’s passing mention of the speech in Catalan highlights his inability to understand the local language and culture and, in general, his lack of involvement in local politics. Political divisions, to him, are limited to superficial demonstrations such as the waving of flags. Over the course of the narrative, however, Orwell will come to realize that political dynamics within the Republican camp are just as important—if not more—as the military fight against the Fascists.