SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘1984 and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read


In 1937, George Orwell spent six months in Catalonia, witnessing the rise and fall of the popular revolution on the streets of Barcelona and Catalonia. Alone amongst his contemporaries, Orwell understood what the success or failure of that Spanish Revolution would mean for the rest of the world. The lessons he learnt, were explained in the three books he wrote upon his return.

1984 And The Spanish Civil War – the 2nd book in the ‘Forgotten Spain Series’ – tells the story of Orwell’s relationship with Spain and the legacy he has left us:

*How far was ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ the inevitable conclusion to all Orwell had witnessed in those brief months he spent in Spain?
*Why was his work so unanimously rejected by his contemporaries in England?
*Was the revolution Orwell witnessed in Barcelona crushed forever by the end of the war, or did it slide into hibernation, awaiting the present conditions for revival?

If you want to understand Spain today, you need to understand Orwell. If you wish to understand the work of Orwell, you need to understand the history of Spain in 1937.


1984 and the Spanish Civil War is the second book in Paul Read’s Forgotten Stories from Spain series. George Orwell, now synonymous with ‘privacy, procedure and responsibility’ has much to thank from his time in Spain in regards to his greatest works. His theory on the ‘thought police’ , of big brother and their CCTV cameras are part of common culture, and he was the man who gave a face to big corporates and hierarchies that control the populace. While the reclusive Orwell (real name Eric Blair) died aged just 46, his work lives on.

His work, Homage to Catalonia, is the best piece of work that embodies the Spanish Civil War from a personal point of view, by a man who didn’t fall for ideals of either side of the fight, and dared to stand up and question Spain’s situation. With suspicion from the right and criticism from the left, he was able to produce three of his great works – Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and 1984.

Between 30-35,000 people joined the civil war as volunteers, the International Brigades, organised mostly by the Communist Party, but Orwell slipped into Spain through a Marxist militia and fought for the POUM, which would eventually be his downfall in Spain. He was able to assess the different sides of the left in the war – Socialists, Anarchists, Communists, Republicans, Basques, Catalonians and the big unions in Barcelona, the UGT and CNT. 1984 and the Spanish Civil War is a great way to understand why Orwell came to the conclusions he did, what he faced in his desire to fight and come to grips with Spain unlike anyone before him. The book also details what Orwell and his wife went through in escaping Spain.

1984 and Spanish Civil War discusses how criticism of Homage to Catalonia led Orwell to use satire in writing both Animal Farm and 1984 to relate his ideals and knowledge. In learning how power can destroy ideals and morals, and seeing the left coalition the civil war collapse under ‘folding lies’, fighting for something to save face rather than believing in the facts, Orwell was able to produce these stunning works.

The book also goes on to talk about how, in many ways, Spain has not changed. In these times of austerity, many of the original ideas that spurred the civil war have come alive again: the left wing and anarchism in its root form – with the indignados, occupation movements, desahucios (evictions and related occupations) and also escrache, calling people to account in public settings (humiliation protests if you will). Orwell may be proud that some of his ideas are alive and in practice today, who knows.

Paul Read has written an excellent book on the subject of Orwell and the effect of the war on the Englishman. 1984 and the Spanish Civil War is insightful, well-researched and written in a smooth, satisfying pace, giving out so many details, and informing the reader on many certitudes that they may not have known. A highly recommended book.

See book one in the series – Forgotten Stories from Spain: The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War

See more from Paul Read on Speaking of Spain

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