Orwell spent six months during the Spanish Civil War fighting for the loyalist or republican side against the fascists led by Francisco Franco. The fascists, representing the church and most of the military, were attempting to replace the left-wing government that had previously replaced the monarchy. Orwell, along with various socialists, communists and anarchists, fought in support of the existing government, known as the Second Spanish Republic.
The action in the book takes place in the Catalonia region of Spain, in and around Barcelona. Orwell describes trench warfare at the front and street fighting in Barcelona. The trench warfare against the fascists was a miserable experience, distinguished by cold, hunger and filth. Orwell saw relatively little action, although he did participate in one major attack and was later wounded by a sniper.
The street fighting, unfortunately, was between the communists and the anarchists, who were supposed to be allies against the fascists. The communists took control of the government and then violently suppressed the anarchists and trade unionists, throwing people like Orwell into jail or executing them. Orwell and his wife avoided being captured and returned safely to England, where Orwell wrote this book while the war in Spain continued.
Orwell tries to explain the relationships between the various left-wing factions in Spain, but it is very difficult to keep track of who is who and which group is represented by which acronym (CNT, POUM, UGT, etc.). He does make clear, however, how journalists misrepresented the situation in Spain, and how the communists in particular used propaganda, as well as violence, to temporarily achieve power. His descriptions of incompetent or disreputable journalism do not seem peculiar to Communism, however, or to the Spanish Civil War: “It is impossible to read through reports in the Communist press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice”.
The book ends with Orwell safely back home, but glad that he went to Spain, and worrying that his countrymen “are sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. German invaded Poland a year later. (11/13/11)