On May 3rd, Orwell hears of vague trouble at the Telephone Exchange but does not pay much attention to this information. Then, suddenly, shots are fired in the city and everyone realizes that the fighting they have been anticipating is finally happening. When Orwell hears rifle shots behind him in the center of town, he wants to return to his hotel to check on his wife. However, the firing has intensified and he ends up following an American doctor he knows to the Hotel Falcón, a POUM building.
After days of dread and tension, the divisions within the Republican camp become visible and concrete. Far from the front line, this new bout of fighting proves that the anti-Fascist camp is waging a war within its own coalition. The war that Orwell thought he was fighting against the Fascists has turned into a complicated, internal political mess.
Orwell asks his friend what is going on and is told that Assault Guards have attacked the Telephone Exchange, a building controlled by the Anarchists, and that fighting began when Anarchists arrived to defend the building. Orwell suddenly understands the vague mention of the Telephone Exchange he heard earlier in the day. The Government, he assumes, must have asked the Anarchists to surrender the building and, when the Anarchists refused, ordered the police to take the building by force.
Orwell immediately understands that the Republican Government is probably involved in sparking this inter-party violence. He also grasps that the fighting was a matter of defensive reaction on the Anarchists’ part. It seems that the Government might be deliberately sabotaging the revolutionary working-class control of the city.
When Orwell and his friend reach the Hotel Falcón, which is full of confusion, Orwell walks to the Comité Local of the POUM across the street, where people are waiting to receive rifles. Orwell’s status as a foreigner initially makes the POUM officers suspicious of him, but when he is recognized as a militiaman he is finally given a rifle. A rumor is circulating that the Comité Local is soon to be attacked and that people should remain to defend it.
In addition to the Anarchists who defended the Telephone Exchange, the POUM, too, believe themselves to be under attack. In the chaos of this outbreak of violence, Orwell immediately sides with the POUM, demonstrating that his involvement in the war is no longer a party-neutral fight against the Fascists, but that he has become a partisan of the revolutionary militia.
In the agitation of the moment, no one seems to know exactly what is happening. People are convinced that the Assault Guards have launched a direct attack against the Anarchists and the working class. No one mentions the possible involvement of the Government in the whole affair. The Anarchists and the POUM view the conflict as a clear fight between the working class and the police. Orwell immediately sides with the more vulnerable, and therefore more deserving side: the workers.
For hours, nothing happens, and as evening begins to settle Orwell briefly exits the building to find something to eat. Shops are closed and the streets are completely dark, empty, and silent. Orwell tries to call his wife but cannot get through to her. He manages to get in touch with John McNair, the ILP representative in Barcelona. John decides to brave the dark and dangerous streets in order to bring the men a pack of cigarettes, a small gesture that Orwell finds heroic.
The city is eerie and foreboding, filled with a sense of impending doom. In this scary atmosphere, John McNair’s decision to bring the men cigarettes stands out as unusually generous, demonstrating the sense of solidarity that is sustained between all members the POUM, even if there is no longer such solidarity within the anti-Fascist coalition as a whole.
Orwell wanders through the building, past the many people sleeping, the litter, and the broken furniture that he considers a typical by-product of the revolution. Despite the common rumors according to which all political parties in Barcelona possess a stock of arms, at the armory he is shocked to discover that there are no more weapons than the sixty rifles that were distributed earlier to the people in the building.
Despite Orwell’s support of the POUM’s values, he is still capable of looking at the revolution with a critical eye. He can separate its idealistic appeal from its application in reality, which tends to be messy and unappealing.
During the night, Orwell is put on guard at the window, and by dawn people are already building barricades in the street. As women, children, and men form a line to carry cobblestones and bags of sand to the barricade, Orwell is impressed by the sudden burst of efficient organization that the Spanish can achieve when they set their minds to it. After only a couple of hours, the barricades are ready for use and manned by riflemen.
When he is faced with a stunning example of good organization, Orwell is forced to reconsider his cultural criticism of Spanish inefficiency. The Spaniards’ skill at building barricades also signals that people in Barcelona are accustomed to street fighting between political groups. This reveals an underlying state of tension within the left that Orwell was entirely unaware of before coming to Spain.
When the POUM takes Orwell’s rifle away from him, he decides to return to the Hotel Continental, but bullets are flying throughout the city and he heads, instead, to the POUM Executive Building to receive orders. There, he finds Kopp and, when they hear the loud sound of guns firing below, he follows his officer to see what is happening. The night before, they discover, Assault Guards occupied the neighboring building, a café called the Café Moka, and were planning to attack the POUM building in the morning. Their attack is thwarted by POUM fire and the Assault Guards are forced to retreat.
It becomes clear that the POUM, in addition to the Anarchists, are indeed under attack by the police. As the police respond to Government orders, it is likely that the Government is (or might become) involved somehow. The POUM’s refusal to surrender demonstrates that they still believe they can defend themselves. They do not yet realize that pro-Communist groups have more political clout than they do, making their resistance rather useless.
Kopp takes control of the situation and, courageously, in the middle of the fray, disarms so that he can parley with the Assault Guards. When Kopp returns, he explains that the Assault Guards are terrified and do not actually want to fight. POUM leaders, he tells Orwell, have issued orders to defend the building but only shoot if they are fired at. Orwell concludes that POUM leaders do not actually want to be involved in this outburst of violence but feel that they must stand with the workers during the fight.
The police are merely reacting to orders from above, while the working class is merely defending itself from an unexpected aggression. The POUM do not actually want to fight against their own leftwing allies, but class-based support for the workers ends up prevailing over the possibility of compromise with the Government or the police.
Despite the lack of immediate danger, Orwell assesses this period as one of the worst, most disillusioning moments in his life. He is placed as a guard on top of an observatory across from the POUM building and, from this vantage point, reflects on the folly of what he is witnessing. The city is in lockdown, trapped in a chaotic, surreal situation, in which it is extremely difficult to figure out who is fighting whom. Since people in Barcelona are used to street fighting, the city is immediately divided geographically into pro-Communist and pro-Anarchists neighborhoods, as each side retreats into its own political district. As a foreigner unaware of these political frontiers, Orwell is grateful for the political flags flown over each building, which allow him to grasp the political geography of what he is witnessing.
To a militiaman who has faced the dangers of the front, the outbreak of violence within the leftwing coalition in a city so far removed from the dangers of the front is an absurd and dispiriting sight. It also forces Orwell to realize his ignorance of local politics. To him, the fighting is a senseless waste of time, whereas to the locals it fits within a long-existing pattern of political rivalry. Orwell becomes intensely aware of his status as a foreigner in a city whose underlying political dynamics he had previously either ignored or underestimated.
Orwell waits for many hours on the roof, bored and reading a novel. He notices Kopp, who has by now become friendly with the Assault Guards, enter the Café Moka from time to time. A few, isolated episodes of shooting make Orwell believe that the fighting has started again, but nothing comes of it in the end. In other parts of the city, the firing goes on and on, but Orwell identifies the sounds as purely defensive reactions. He hears no artillery fire and concludes that the fighting is therefore not too serious.
Orwell’s boredom in the city recalls his boredom at the front. Kopp’s friendliness with the Assault Guards hints at the fact that ideological differences often matter less than the capacity to get along and treat others with respect. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the violent attitude currently defining political infighting within the left.
In the meantime, food begins to run short. At the beginning, before the food shortage becomes too severe, the street fighting is regarded as a trivial, unimportant event. People believe that it is a mere scuffle between the Anarchists and the police, an event of no great significance.
Orwell introduces the idea that material comforts influence people’s political opinions. Like most people, Orwell, too, tends to focus on his own physical well-being, whether in the city or at the frontline.
On May 5th, things began to change. Tired of the pointless violence, people on both sides begin to fear that this fighting might divert energy from the greater fight against the Fascists. That evening, Kopp tells Orwell that the Government is planning to declare the POUM illegal as a means of suppressing it. Orwell is left with the dark presentiment that the POUM, the weakest party in the affair, is likely to be scapegoated and blamed for the entire event. In light of this threat, however, the POUM is no longer a neutral actor—it must protect itself. POUM leaders thus make plans to attack the Café Moka.
Orwell finds himself caught in a war within a war. The political infighting within the left detracts from the noble goal for which he came to Spain to fight. Paradoxically, he becomes an actor in the fight against the very Government he came to protect. The Government’s decision to suppress the POUM demonstrates its lack of commitment to the social revolution that so fascinated Orwell—and, perhaps, its lack of commitment even to the war itself.
In the following hours, for the entire evening, men in the POUM building attempt to fortify the building. Exhausted and tense, Orwell tries to rest. He is convinced that he will soon be woken up to attack the Café Moka, where he will likely die. However, in the morning, he is surprised to discover that nothing has happened, for the Government has in fact taken no action against the POUM. Instead, a few hours later, an armistice leads everybody back into the streets, in search of food and anxious to know if the fighting will begin again.
As has happened many times in this war, political predictions fail to come true and an anticipated battle is delayed once again. In this context, it remains ambiguous whether the Government is truly committed to suppressing the POUM.
Unsurprisingly, shots are indeed fired once more and Orwell returns to his post on top of the observatory. He is moved by revulsion and anger as he contemplates the futility of this entire affair. He realizes that in the midst of these historic events, what matters most to him is not the political complexity of the situation but, rather, material discomforts such as lack of food and sleep, as they remind him of his frustrating days at the front.
Orwell realizes that what will stay with him after the war is perhaps less the political intricacies of what he has witnessed than the emotions and sensations that fighting in Spain has produced in him. His feelings of frustration at the mess of politics can be understood in part by his status as a foreigner, unaware of the deep roots of this conflict in Spanish politics.
Orwell spends one last night on the roof. The next day, there is little shooting and the Government orders people to get back to work. Ultimately, people do end up leaving the barricades, primarily because of the lack of food. By the afternoon the city has almost returned to normal. Orwell notices that the Anarchist flag has disappeared from the Telephone Exchange, which means that the Anarchists have lost the fight. He senses vaguely, as a dark foreboding, that when the fighting fully ends the Government will probably inflict punishment on those it considers responsible for the fighting.
The speed with which people return to work conveys an eerie feeling of forgetfulness, as though closure had not truly been achieved. The conflict has not reached an end thanks to political compromise but, rather, because of the mere material need to return to normal economic activity.
Later that evening, Government-ordered Valencian Assault Guards appear in the city. By the next day, they have invaded the streets, in a display of strength intended to intimidate the population into submission. Orwell is awed by the Valencian Guards’ weapons, which are far better than the ones he has seen at the front and which he never suspected the Republic possessed. He notices that, in general, the police forces operating in the rear have far better weapons than those found at the front.
Orwell notes yet another injustice in the Government’s supply of resources to armed forces. Paradoxically, the Government decides to give better weapons to the forces that are not actually fighting the Fascists at the front. This suggests that the Government is perhaps less committed to the success of the revolutionary militias than to maintaining political control in the rear.
The fighting in Barcelona allows the Government in Valencia to take control of the city. Republican flags are flown everywhere, barricades slowly brought down, and arms seized from Anarchist strongholds. The POUM’s newspaper is censored, while Communist newspapers continue to appear, publishing anti-POUM stories, accusing it of deliberately instilling rebellion and of being secretly allied with the Fascists. Orwell concludes that newspapers only defend one side of the conflict.
The very flags that were the symbol of Barcelona’s social transformation are taken down, signaling the end of the revolution in the city. The Government begins an undemocratic procedure against the POUM by keeping it from expressing its freedom of speech in the press. In this way, its desire to suppress the POUM becomes more and more obvious.
The atmosphere of suspicion that has been intensifying over the past few days becomes even worse, and Orwell is dismayed to realize that the official narrative of the conflict provides inaccurate facts in order to scapegoat the POUM and lead to its suppression. Orwell concludes that in such circumstances, in which the pro-Communist press is accusing the POUM of treason, he could never join the Communist unit fighting in Madrid. He feels that, even among Communists, any problem that emerges will always be blamed on the working class.
The Communist press takes part in an anti-democratic, untruthful campaign of denigration against the POUM. Orwell becomes aware of the gap between party ideology and the values it demonstrates in practice. He realizes that the Communist party, whose ideology he previously respected and agreed with, does not support the very group it is meant to protect: the working class.
After the fighting, Anarchist sympathizers are arrested and thrown into prison without trial. Foreigners with suspicious backgrounds go into hiding and Orwell, affected by the deep stress of the past few days, becomes obsessed with the idea that he might be arrested at any moment. Looking back on this period, Orwell is impressed by how strange the atmosphere was at the time: a complex mix of fear, hunger, and the constant threat of violence. He remembers interacting with a variety of civilians who were entirely unaware of the political complexity of what was happening, and who saw the fighting as a bout of meaningless violence.
The civilians’ disregard for the complexity of the fighting mirrors Orwell’s initial lack of understanding of local political dynamics. Unlike ordinary civilians, though, he is forced to experience such dynamics firsthand, as he becomes aware that merely having the wrong political opinions is sufficient to get him arrested. This is an absurd threat to face in supposedly democratic territory.