In December, 1936, George Orwell leaves his English home for Spain, a country in the midst of a brutal civil war. Like most international observers, Orwell sees the war in Spain as a struggle between democracy and Fascism. He volunteers to fight on the side of the Republicans (a coalition of pro-democracy, leftwing parties) against the Nationalists (a conservative, Catholic, rightwing group led by General Franco).
Upon his arrival in Barcelona, he is amazed to find that a large-scale social revolution has taken hold in the city. Communist and Anarchist flags hang on all the buildings, shops have been collectivized, and everyone treats each other with an air of perfect equality. The bourgeois, it seems, have all but disappeared, and the working class appear in complete control of the city. The atmosphere of equality and freedom that reigns strengthens Orwell’s conviction that he has made the right decision to fight for such a noble cause.
He soon joins the POUM militia, a Marxist group affiliated with the Anarchists, and is sent to the front. The POUM are organized on the principle of social equality, which means that differences in rank are treated as irrelevant and soldiers are free to disagree with their superiors’ orders. While Orwell respects these ideals, he realizes that the militia is mainly composed of young, inexperienced Spanish recruits. He is dismayed at the group’s inadequacy and expresses skepticism about the militia’s capacity to maintain discipline and win the war. However, his personal experience changes this initial impression. Over time, Orwell learns to admire the POUM for its capacity to breed loyalty and commitment in its soldiers and to foster a sense of democratic involvement. All in all, despite the militia’s inefficiencies, Orwell concludes that the POUM serves as a convincing model of how an ideal, classless society can function.
In the meantime, life at the front is characterized by stagnation. Because of the complicated nature of the terrain and the lack of adequate resources, soldiers spend most of their time worrying about everyday survival instead of actually fighting the enemy. Attacks are extremely infrequent, and Orwell finds himself spending his days collecting firewood instead of preparing for battle. Ironically, casualties are less often the result of enemy fire than a fellow soldier’s blunder. In this context, where the war seems to consist only of endless days of waiting, Orwell begins to lose faith in the nobility of the war and the meaningfulness of his commitment.
In April 1937, after four months and a half of life at the front, Orwell is given leave to return to Barcelona. This moment marks a turning point in his understanding of the war. In only a few months, the city has changed drastically from a society controlled by the working class to an ordinary city where poverty and class differences are once again apparent. The city is also filled with political tension among leftwing parties. In May, this tension suddenly gives way to violence as fighting erupts between the POUM and the Communists, and the city turns into a maze of barricades. The Communist Party seizes this opportunity to attack the POUM in the media, accusing them of being Fascist traitors. With shock, Orwell discovers that the Communist Party is often undemocratic in its proceedings and manipulates the truth in order to crush its political rivals. He realizes that political divisions within the Spanish left run deeper than he had initially imagined, and that these divisions threaten to hobble the Republican’s war effort against the Nationalist enemy. As a result, Orwell soon becomes completely disillusioned with the possibility for Spain to maintain a healthy democracy.
A few days after the fighting, Orwell returns to the front. There, he discovers with surprise that life carries on as usual, and the soldiers seem unaware of the gravity of the political situation on the home front. One day, while speaking to a colleague, Orwell is suddenly shot in the neck by a Fascist sniper. He is taken to a hospital where, when doctors finally examine his wound, they conclude that he will never be able to speak again—a diagnosis that turns out to be incorrect.
Injured, Orwell returns to Barcelona, a city now marked by deep political division that has turned to hatred, fear, and suspicion. When he goes to meet his wife in their hotel, she panics and tells him to go into hiding at once. The Spanish Government, she explains, has outlawed the POUM, so that anyone affiliated with the POUM is now being thrown into jail. Orwell is outraged by this political reign of terror. Many of his friends and admired companions are arrested and sent to prison. He does not understand how, in a time of war, the Government could afford to imprison able-bodied people that are desperately needed at the front.
Finally, one morning in June 1937, after multiple days of hiding, Orwell and his wife manage to get on a train to leave the country. The couple escapes to France, leaving the chaos of war behind. Once in safe territory, Orwell reflects on the powerful impression that the Spanish Civil War has left on him. More than the bitterness and cruelty of the political climate in Barcelona, he was struck by the atmosphere of his everyday life as a militiaman, and what he saw as the courage and dignity of individuals fighting at the front lines of the war. Inspired by the courageous people he has met, he is left with a feeling of hope and a strong “belief in the decency of human beings.”
Upon his return to England, he is surprised by the nation’s tranquil and its isolation from the war. After the revolutionary ebullience he has witnessed in Spain, he wonders if the only thing that will ever force England to become more politically aware, more awake to the injustices of the world, will be the brutal “roar of bombs”—a comment that serves as a dark foreboding of the violence that World War II will bring.
Orwell dedicates two Appendixes, separate from the rest of the narrative, to the complex issue of Spanish politics. In Appendix I, he lays out the ideological differences between the various parties within the Republican coalition. He explains that infighting among leftwing groups, which he had originally considered an issue of little importance to the war, ultimately proved stronger than the Republicans’ commitment to fight the Fascists. Orwell accuses the pro-Communist media, as well as international actors, of defending narrow political interests that ultimately weakened and divided the Spanish left. The Spanish Civil War, Orwell concludes, was never a war for democracy but, rather, an opportunity for parties to assert their dominance in the political game.
In Appendix II, Orwell examines in detail the news articles written about the Barcelona fighting in May 1937 with the goal of pointing out the ways in which the media is used as a tool to serve specific group’s political interests. He criticizes journalists for stating wrong facts, contradicting themselves, engaging in fabrication and, in general, producing articles that fail to represent the truth of what actually happened. The result of such bad practices is that the POUM, which has little influence with the press, is unable to defend itself against accusations of treason, however unfounded they might be. In the end, Orwell argues, such scapegoating of the POUM had the effect of further weakening the anti-Fascist coalition.