Book – Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

 

Orwell’s War in Spain

George Orwell gives a close up view of the attempt to set up anarchist and socialist governments during the 1930’s in civil war-torn Spain

Fragmentation of the Left in the Spanish Civil War

The danger was quite simple and intelligible. It was the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it – ultimately, between Anarchists and Communists….
Given this alignment of forces there was bound to be trouble.”
Such is Orwell’s succinct analysis of the problems facing those who would resist Franco’s right wing coup in Spain in 1936.

Opposed to the Franco-led Fascists (supported by Germany and Italy) was the Popular Front, “in essential an alliance of enemies“. Further complicating the mix was the emerging fact that in Spain, “on the Government [ie, anti-fascist] side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right. ” Orwell justifies this counter-intuitive claim with a detailed discussion, summarized by noting that the International Communist movement at this time had forsaken the goal of world revolution to chase the chimera of the completion of a revolution in the USSR. This Stalinist position (including alliances with capitalist democracies at the expense of workers and unions) caused Trotsky and others to seek other venues. Recently, the formerly Maoist (nee ‘Trotskyite’) rulers of China similarly shifted from totalitarian extreme left to authoritarian right (socialist ideals sacrificed to entrepreneurial capitalism, without significant political liberty.) [Compare similar ideas presented in China Wakes -The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power – Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn]

 

Why the Communists dominated

The Communists focused on winning the war no matter what –without collectivization that would alienate the peasants, or worker control of industry that would push the middle classes into Franco’s arms. Their stated goal was parliamentary
democracy, with strong central government, and a fully militarized government under central, unified command. The POUM position was that such talk was just another name for capitalism, and ultimately the same as fascism. Their alternative was worker control, with workers militias and police forces “If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers”. The Anarchists (actually a multitude of parties) had comprised in even considering this alliance, but insisted on direct `control over industry by workers, “government by local committees and resistance to all forms of centralized authoritarianism” Orwell’s summary of this bewildering political situation is “Communist emphasis is always on centralism and efficiency, the Anarchist’s on liberty and equality”. Combining forces seemed like a reasonable solution for the duration, “But in the early period, when the revolutionary parties seemed to have the game in their hands, this was impossible. Between the Anarchists and the Socialists there were ancient jealousies, the POUM, as Marxists, were sceptical of Anarchism, while from the pure Anarchist standpoint, the ‘Trotskyism’ of the POUM was not much preferable to the ‘Stalinism’ of the Communists.”

One example of how these rivalries frustrated an effective opposition to the Fascists:

.. the Russian arms were supplied via the Communist Party, and the parties allied to them, who saw to it that as few as possible got to their political opponents. …by proclaiming a non-revolutionary policy the Communists were able to gather in all those whom the extremists h ad scared. It was easy, for instance, to rally the wealthier peasants against the collectivization policy of the Anarchists. … The war was essentially a triangular struggle. The fight against Franco had to continue, but the simultaneous aim of the Government was to recover such power as remained in the hands of the trade unions. It was done by .. a policy of pin pricks…There was no general and obvious counterrevolutionary move.. The workers could always be brought to heel by an argument that is almost too obvious to need stating: ‘Unless you do this, that and the other we shall lose the war’.”

 

 

Spanish Civil War & the Cold War

Modern parallels, from the arguments made during the cold war to modern appeals by the Democratic party to its leftward elements and other progressives– ‘work with us or get something worse’. Or, in his descriptions of the Communist crack down on the other Leftist factions after the 1937 Barcelona street fighting, a comparison of the broad and unchecked abuses of a police force which has no worries about habeas corpus — why worry about producing evidence at a trial when it can merely arrest or ‘disappear’ opponents without any legal representation or outside communication.

But this book is also a very personal one, written less than a year after these events took place, Orwell paints indelible images of life in the muddy trenches, and even the moment when he is shot in the throat:

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into the immense distance… I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space much less than a second. The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang, which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.”

 

Book – Byzantium – John Julius Norwich

Final assault and the fall of Constantinople in 1453
This is a trilogy consisting of:

      • Byzantium – The Early Centuries
      • Byzantium – The Apogee
      • Byzantium – The Decline and Fall

There’s also an abridged version, in one volume, but I  find it difficult to consider missing out on so much. Norwich writes for the lay reader, but relies heavily on primary sources, often with intriguing quotes.  Despite the potential for dry history, he instead presents a lively and fascinating account of the millennium of Byzantine history, starting with Constantine and ending with the Ottoman conquest. Beginning with a quote from W.E.H. Lecky, 1869,

  • Of that Byzantine empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed.. …The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude of perpetual fratricides.”, he comments, “This somewhat startling diatribe… although to modern ears it is perhaps not quite so effective as the author meant it to be — his last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining — the fact remains that, for the past 200 years and more, what used to be known as the Later Roman Empire has had an atrocious press.  “

 

Norwich proceeds to prove that point in 3 volumes of readable history filled with tales both heroic and despicable.

The footnotes are as intriguing as the main text. After describing how

  • the soldiers everywhere proclaimed that they would accept on none but Constantine’s sons, reigning jointly.  With Crispus dead, that left the three sons born to Fausta; the Caesar in Gaul Constantine II, the Caesar in the East Constantius, and the Caesar in Italy Constans”,

he footnotes

  • The distressing lack of imagination shown by Constantine in the naming of his
    children has caused much confusion among past historians, to say nothing of
    their readers.  The latter can take comfort in the knowledge that it lasts
    for a single generation only — which, in a history such as this, is soon over

His style is brisk and interlocking, writing on the broader European history, he’ll follow one thread for several years, then return to the main branch and continue on.  The current year under discussion is always in the upper right corner of the page, making it easier to follow the twists and turns of the plot.   The book is so well written that one can easily jump in anywhere and pick up the flow.

One of the major benefits of this leisurely treatment is the ability to correct historic misunderstandings and mistakes.  The first and most interesting is his emphasis on the fact that the ‘barbarian’ invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries were almost always led by christianized tribes (Goths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths) looking for a land to settle their people.
And in many cases, these were not invasions, but uprisings and revolts of peoples who had been promised land and security by the emperor(s) and then been ignored.  The case of Alaric is of particular interest — history books typically spend a paragraph at best and describe him as an invading brute, whose invasion of Italy is stopped only by a courageous pope.   In fact, Alaric and his Visigoths had been alllied with the Roman Empire for some years, and it was only after they had been continually denied their promised lands that Alaric invaded.  (He was opposed by the Vandal Stilicho who led the Imperial forces. Another interesting view is the ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire (western) in 476. The last Western emperor, Romulus Augustulus abdicated in favor of Odoacer, whose goal was to continue to rule as a subject of the Eastern Emperor. Rather than a major turning point in history, Norwich explains

  • it is also undeniable that most people in Italy at the time, watching the young ex-emperor settle himself into his comfortable Campanian villa, would have been astounded to learn that they were living through one of the great
    watersheds of European history.  For nearly a century now that had grown used to seeing barbarian generals at the seat of power.  There had been Arbogast the Frank, then Stilicho the Vandal, then Aetius — who, though a
    Roman, was almost certainly of Germanic origin on this father’s side — then Ricimer the Suevian.  Was the Scyrian Odoacer, they might have asked so very different from these? 

The answer is that he was — though for one reason only.  He had refused to accept a Western Emperor.  In the past those Emperors may have been little more than puppets; nevertheless they bore the title of Augustus, and as such they were both a symbol and a constant reminder of the imperial authority.  Without them, that authority was soon forgotten.  Odoacer had request the rank of Patrician; but the title that he preferred to use was Rex. In less than sixty years, Italy would be so far lost as to need a full-scale reconquest by Justinian.  I would be two and a quarter centuries before another Emperor appeared in the West; when he died, his capital would be in Germany rather than in Italy, and he would be a rival rather than a colleague — not a Roman but a Frank.

It’s always difficult for modern readers to fully understand any previous culture, and for the Byzantine case, Norwich spends extra time trying to convey a sense of the importance of religion in every day affairs.  Many of the political arguments revolved around the propagation and extermination of various heresies.  Despite the attempts of various councils convened by the Emperors, heresies such as the Arian, Nestorian and monophysite continued to prosper.  What’s particularly interesting is that the history is not a simple progression of orthodox emperors and allied
clergy fighting a successful battle against heterodox opinion.  Rather it’s a much more complex situation in which Arian or monophysite ideas would control the state and church for long periods.  Only after the fact can one look back to see the emergence of the orthodox.   Splits between east and west were also common, but sometimes even comical:

In 482, the Emperor Zeno’s attempt to

  • heal the breach by means of a circular letter known as the Henoticon, had proved spectacularly unsuccessful.  It had sought to paper over the differences .. and, like all such compromises, it had aroused the implacable hostility of both sides.  Most outraged of all were Pope Simplicius in Rome and his successor Felix III, whose anger was still further increased by the appointment to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, with the bless of both Zeno and Acacius, of one Paul the Stammerer, a cleric whose utterances, when comprehensible at all, were violently monophysite in character. At a synod held in Rome in 484, Pope Felix had gone so far as to excommunicate the
    Patriarch of Constantinople — a sentence which, in default of any orthodox ecclesiastic courageous enough to pronounce it, had been transcribed on to a piece of parchment and pinned to the back of Acacius’s cope during a service in St. Sophia, when he was not looking, whereat the Patriarch, discovering it a few moments later, instantly excommunicated him back, thereby not only placing the see of Constantinople on the same hierarchical level as that of Rome but simultaneously confirming and open schism between the two churches that was to last for the next thirty-five years.

The Byzantium trilogy contains a good index, and excellent tables of the emperors, and family trees for the often confusing lineages. The maps are adequate, but as so often happens, fail to contain many of the important place names contained in the text. Luckily there are many excellent historical atlases available as complements.  While expensive ($45 each in hard cover), Byzantium is well worth the price.

Other links:

Books about Turkey

Byzantine Ruins