There is said to be something which binds together instances of conflict and strife throughout the human experience. Maybe it is the suffering such things cause, which is a pain all societies experience and which is never entirely distinct from previous iterations; perhaps it is the required impulses of savagery – temporary though they may be – which are necessary in war; possibly this includes the fact that war shapes and forges societies, even if it does not affect their borders, simply by the force of its trauma and the fact of its happening at all.
A particularly pertinent example of the parallels which exist between societies in conflict can be seen when examining the Spanish Civil War and the same phenomenon – civil conflict mixed with a great deal of outside interference – as it is exhibited in Ukraine at the moment.
This comparison is not exact, and nor is it meant to be; but there is some value to be found and extracted from such intellectual exercises.
Of the sources we have which examine the Spanish war, there are few in the English language written with the immediacy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The book has such poise – and such an incisive capacity to examine actions and motivations – that the decidedly personal nature of its narrative is almost irrelevant. Though in reality it is about one man’s war, it instead can be seen as emblematic of an entire nation’s experiences.
Orwell’s war left him jaded and with a wound which would affect him for the rest of his life. What he wrote about – what he described and to some extent categorised – is of an importance which means that it survives him, and even transcends the war about which it was written.
A particularly valuable idea which the book communicates is the tension between expectation and reality. The war did not go as Orwell and his comrades anticipated; those opposing fascism ended up fighting each other; and the very nature of the war somehow differed, to those who fought, from their expectations. It seemed to be somehow outside the course of history. There is something, certainly, in Orwell’s assertion that ‘If this was history it did not feel like it’.
The same, in some ways, can be seen in what has happened to Ukraine. It has undergone the greatest trauma of its recent history and it is presently in a state of civil conflict, while a part of its sovereign territory is currently under the occupation of a foreign power. Such things are, almost by definition, the stuff of history. Why, then, does the Ukrainian conflict seem so peripheral, especially to observers in the West? This cannot be entirely because of the effects of geographical distance; present-day communications and other forms of technology have rendered that a nonsense.
No doubt some of this inattention is caused by other events – for example the Mediterranean refugee crisis – seeming even more vital, even more like a truly historical crisis unfolding before the eyes of observers. In addition, it cannot be avoided that the nature of the conflict in Ukraine has been transfigured and altered by the presence of propaganda in such vast quantities. With such stuff diluting the very nature of wider perception of this event, it is hardly surprising that the very fabric of the conflict begins to become less intelligible. The over-supply of information, much of it completely and deliberately false, has begun to create a climate of unreality even around demonstrable facts.
Orwell wrote about a similar situation. Being unable to shoot fascists – and he was not alone – Orwell was relegated to a different, but hardly secondary, form of warfare: ‘As a matter of fact, on this front and at this period of the war the real weapon was not the rifle but the megaphone. Being unable to kill your enemy you shouted at him instead.’
This method of fighting requires some explanation: ‘Wherever the lines were within hailing distance of one another there was always a good deal of shouting from trench to trench.’ Both the Nationalists and the Republicans routinely made use of slogans and more developed arguments in order to undermine the confidence of the enemy: ‘On the Government side, in the party militias, the shouting of propaganda to undermine the enemy morale had been developed into a regular technique.’
Orwell even recounts how such things had become a regular part of the waging of war. ‘In every suitable position men, usually machine-gunners, were told off for shouting-duty and provided with megaphones.’
This often proved – especially on the Republican side – rather crude, however. ‘From ourselves: “Fascistas – maricones!” From the Fascists: “Viva España! Viva Franco!” – or, when they knew that there were English opposite them: “Go home, you English! We don’t want foreigners here!”’ The latter aspect – that of perceived foreign interference – is something to be seen in many conflicts both before and since. In Ukraine, for example, pro-Russian media writes of American inference in Russia’s sphere of influence, or of NATO or European Union ‘expansion’ eastwards; indeed, some have taken to calling Russia’s invasion of its neighbour the Union’s ‘first colonial war’.
This style of communication is greatly aided by a worldview which embraces notions of international conspiracy. In Spain operations of this sort were largely mounted by the Left-wing Republicans:
Generally they shouted a set-piece, full of revolutionary sentiments which explained to the Fascist soldiers that they were merely the hirelings of international capitalism, that they were fighting against their own class, etc., etc., and urged them to come over to our side.
The modern equivalent is the suggestion by some – notably pro-Russian activists – that those who fight for, or advocate in favour of, Ukraine’s independence are merely the servants of American power. In many ways the question of whether Ukraine remains independent of Russian influence is a profoundly important one; and it will matter not only in contemporary terms but also in future historical analysis of our era.
Another observation of Orwell’s is also pertinent to this question. Though he does it obliquely, a great deal of Homage to Catalonia deals with how historians will view conflicts like these in years to come. Orwell writes with pessimism that ‘It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist.’ (What he was describing – the internecine struggles which took place between nominally allied Republican groups – does not, I think, have a parallel in Ukraine.)
This is a serious point, though it is one which is not vitally important when considering the civil war in Ukraine; after all, the data produced by that conflict in particular has been immense, and the sources range from the written recollections of thousands of participants, to the proclamations of hundreds of politicians and statesmen, to the audiovisual evidence collected by organisations such as Bellingcat that can tell us so much about potentially world-historical events.
Orwell’s comments are not entirely without value, however. His assertion that ‘Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda’ is certainly true of the Spanish war, and could well be reflected for some time to come in our records of what is happening in Ukraine.
Finally, it is of interest to assess how Orwell reacted to the war on a personal level, and how it stayed with him long after he had left the front. After fleeing Spain after fighting began between many Republican factions, Orwell and his wife, Eileen Blair, ‘stayed three days in Banyuls’. But ‘[i]t was a strangely restless time.’
He later elaborates:
In this quiet fishing-town, remote from bombs, machine-guns, food-queues, propaganda, and intrigue, we ought to have felt profoundly relieved and thankful. We felt nothing of the kind. The things we had seen in Spain did not recede and fall into proportion now that we were away from them; instead they rushed back upon us and were far more vivid than before. We thought, talked, dreamed incessantly of Spain.
The same will doubtless be true for the combatants of both sides in Ukraine. Like Spain, that country has seen an influx of foreigners fighting for one side or other – though many of them, unlike the volunteers of the International Brigades, are professional soldiers of the Russian army. It is still certain that their experiences there will affect them for some time to come – even after this ‘non-linear war’, in the words of Vladislav Surkov, is finally ended.
To make extensive comparisons between these two wars would be fallacious; and to say with too much ease that the more things change the more they stay the same will not do it either. Instead it is useful to compare points of congruence – in this case viewing the development of propaganda and the nature of what might be termed ‘contemporary history’ in two pertinent examples. In that way, perhaps, we might be able to acquire a little perspective – and an awareness of the reality of war.