Book Review : Orwell and the Brits in Spain

March 21, 2014


I  Am Spain: The Spanish Civil War and the Men and Women Who Went to Fight Fascism.  By David Boyd Haycock.  (Brecon: Old Street Publishing Ltd, 2012).

George Orwell’s Commander in Spain: The Enigma of Georges Kopp.  By Marc Wildemeersch. (London, Thames River Press, 2013).

In Spain with Orwell: George Orwell and the Independent Labour Party in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. By Christopher Hall. (Perth, Tippermuir Books, 2013).

Three recent books remind us once again of the non-Spaniards who fought for the Republic against the rebellion led by Franco. War is a great paradox, a truly horrible experience and deeply destructive but it seems to be something that human kind cannot do without.  It plays a significant part in the history of the world. At the individual level, it frequently is the most memorable part of one’s life both in terms of horror and glory, enmity and comradeship.  Certainly war proved to be the transforming experience in George Orwell’s life, a central figure in Haycock’s study as well as an integral focus of the other books under review.

Haycock takes his title from W.H. Auden’s poem, Spain. The stanza is worth quoting as it sums up what the war meant to many foreign volunteers. “What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will./ I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic/ Death? Very well, I accept, for/ I am your choice, your decision. Yes I am Spain.”  Little is known about Auden’s own trip to Spain other than it was brief, disillusioning, and marked his turn towards the right.  Although his poem included the famous phrase “the necessary murder” which Orwell so hated claiming it was said by someone who wasn’t there when the trigger was pulled, one of Auden’s chief memories was being disconcerted by the burning of churches and the killing of priests. Spain is a powerful long poem, published as a pamphlet on behalf of Spanish Medical Aid but Auden later partially disowned it. Many of those who went to Spain had the experience of illusion, reality and disillusion although the war maintained its status as a great cause t worth fighting for.

Haycock’s text tells the story vividly but is more accurately understood as a portrait of “some” men and women who fought fascism. It is mostly the story of the British and Americans who went to Spain, though there are some exceptions such as Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.  And quite a few, such as Capa and Taro (although she was killed at the battle of Brunete) were not actual fighters but obvious supporters of the cause. A great deal of attention is paid to Ernest Hemingway and to a lesser extent to other non-fighters such as Stephen Spender, Martha Gellhorn and less iconic figures such as Kitty Bowler, the American lover of the English captain, Tom Wintringham.

The story is set within the context of the war itself, its battles, political developments, and the growing power of the communists. Haycock seems to offer no new interpretation of the significance of foreign participants, their idealism, experience, and frequent frustrations. Much is familiar to readers of this publication. However, there is some new material, such as quotations from the unpublished autobiography of Kenneth Sinclair-Loutitt of Spanish Medical Aid. But this points to the leading defect of this study. Although listed in the bibliography, there is no indication where to find the autobiography. And this is just one example of the difficulty. There are extensive and interesting quotations from participants but no notes whatsoever.

KoppThere is a fair amount of attention to the central Orwell story but Haycock’s work is incomplete about Orwell’s actions on behalf of his commander, Georges Kopp, when he was in prison. He tells us that Orwell visited him there but nothing more. In fact, Orwell went bravely to see the officer in his headquarters who was supposed to have received a letter on Kopp’s behalf. That visit may have been crucial in saving Kopp’s life even though he remained in prison for a year and a half. My theory has always been that it was a sense of assurance as an English gentleman that helped prevent his arrest while acting on behalf of his POUM commander. Would a foreigner dare to arrest an Etonian?  Thanks to Marc Wildemeersch we now know far more about Kopp, perhaps sadly so. It seems likely that he had a brief affair with Eileen, Orwell’s wife, while she was in Barcelona and George was at the front, although she was never going to leave him.

In Homage to Catalonia Kopp is a deeply attractive figure.  In real life he was far less so. What is intriguing about Wildemeersch’s book is that it doesn’t make clear is why Kopp decided to take part in the Spanish Civil War. As the title suggests, he was something of an enigma. Born in Russia in 1902, he moved to Belgium, causing most to assume that was his nationality. Kopp was a trained engineer, who held various jobs. He seems to have been something of a con man, making various claims that may not have been true.

Nevertheless, his military rank continued to rise. After escaping from Spain, he served in the French Foreign Legion and worked for Vichy. Kopp claimed he was attempting to undermine the organization’s work. He had contacts with MI5, got himself to England during the war, reestablished contact with George and Eileen and stayed with her sister-in-law, Gwen. He then became a member of the family when he married Gwen’s half-sister.  He became a gentleman farmer living in a manor house thanks to his wife’s money. He never made much of himself despite some of his inventions being potential successes. Before his death in France in 1951 (his health had been damaged by imprisonment) he was embroiled in complications over the purchase of a French estate.  In Homage to Catalonia Orwell depicted him at his most heroic. Now we have better information.

Hall’s In Spain with Orwell has a misleadingly title. Orwell is an important figure, to be sure, but in fact he is but one of many characters in the story. This recent work is a revised and expanded version of Not Just Orwell published in 2009.  Orwell fought with the ILP group in Spain and presumably the message of the earlier title was that there were others with him. The new title implies the reverse, that he was the central figure. 2013 was the 75th anniversary of the publication of Orwell’s classic, Homage to Catalonia that immortalized those who fought with him. This is less a book about Orwell than the 40 or so mostly British who fought with him on the Aragon front.

InSpainwithOrwellIt seems that they didn’t have the opportunity to fight very much. Orwell effectively led the group of 15 he commanded in a skirmish which appears to be the only fighting they did. These men were sponsored by the British Independent Labour Party which had only about 4,000 members. Its Spanish equivalent was the POUM, the semi-Trotskyist Spanish party which believed that revolution and war went together, a position disapproved of in Spain by the increasingly powerful Communists. The ILP was energized by the war, providing medical aid, an ambulance, volunteers, and a home for Basque refugee children. It was almost by chance that Orwell, rejected by Harry Pollitt, the head of the British Communist party, then affiliated with the ILP. When he went to Barcelona both to report on the war and to fight for the cause, he enlisted in the POUM militia via the ILP office run by John McNair. The POUM militia had serious problems, both energized and impeded functionally by its belief that military decisions needed to be discussed and not much attention should be paid to rank. It also was poorly armed and trained.  As a former policeman, Orwell had some military skills and in the evocative photographs of him in this book he towers over his colleagues.

Orwell’s first few months in Spain were the most important in his life, I believe. They encapsulated his vision: the possibility of how wonderful a socialist world could be and how almost inevitably it was betrayed in the internecine fighting of the May Days in Barcelona. Hall describes the ILP volunteers with little analysis. The book’s most original parts are biographies of those in the group, although by presenting them separately there is much repetition. One worries about the book’s accuracy. For instance, Hall’s account of Kopp differs in crucial particulars from that presented by Wildemeersch. Hall also cites details of Kopp’s life which are presented differently in Michael Shelden’s life of Orwell which is consistent with Wildemeersch’s. He forgoes the historian’s fundamental obligation of deciding which one is likely to be correct. There are also brief biographies of three Non Commissioned Officers, and then of various lengths of the 38 others, British and Irish but a few others, including one prominent woman, Sybil Wingate, and one American, Harry Milton.  The most important sketches, other than Orwell’s, are Bob Edwards, the senior ILP figure who also served in the British Parliament, Frank Frankford or Frankfurt who wrote a notorious article in the Daily Worker claiming that the POUM consorted with the enemy on the front, and Stafford Cottman who was a friend of Orwell’s. Straight forward biographical accounts are valuable, but they could have been more efficiently presented. This book celebrates those who fought for the Spanish Republic and against Fascism so many years ago.

Peter Stansky has written about Englishmen and the Spanish Civil War in Journey to the Frontier, Orwell: The Transformation, and Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War.