Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and George Orwell at the School of Architecture

Reading about the International Brigades in Legions of Babel: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, it is hard to escape the feeling that for the volunteers (many of them students), the war started out as a crusade of high-minded ideals and intellectualism that became more and more bloody and disillusioning. For example, the International Brigades named each of their battalions after socialist or revolutionary figures:

"Generally organized along ethnic lines, the batteries included the "Anna Pauker," largely French and Belgian rather than Rumanian, the "Thälmann" (German), "Skoda" (Czech), "Gramsci" (Italian), the "Daller" (believed to be French) and later the "John Brown" (predominantly American)." (pg. 59)

"The Abraham Lincoln Battalion; the 428-man battalion included an all Cuban section and an Irish section..." (pg. 64)

"Half of the Americans of the battalion wanted to name their unit after Patrick Henry and the other half after Thomas Paine. While they bickered, Canadians, about one-third of the unit's volunteers, submitted and secured the name Mackenzie-Papineau in honor of two nineteenth-century fighters for independence from Britain, one of whom was the grandfather of the then Prime Minister of Canada." (pg. 86)

So it is surreal to read about these revolutionary figures from different periods of history duking it out against the Blackshirts and other elements of Franco's forces. Though they constituted only a small part of the Republican Army, International Brigades were instrumental in the Battle of Madrid. Here it begins to sound like Lewis Carroll:

"General Emil Kleber, the brigade commander, set up his headquarters in the Faculty of  Philosophy and Literature in the University... The rebels penetrated into the University City and eventually reached the School of Philosophy, where they were finally stopped by the Commune de Paris... the rebels secured the School of Architecture, the Clinical Hospital (where Moors happily seized rabbits and other culinary delicacies only to discover that they had been inoculated with various germs), the School of Agriculture and the house of the painter Velazquez, while the Loyalists held the Schools of Science and Philosophy and Medicine." (pgs. 50-51)

Doesn't that sound like bad allegorical fiction? The war for higher learning in the battleground of the mind. There's even a racist-sounding portrayal of the Moors as the barbarians at the gate.

And then you have a literary figure like Ernest Hemingway driving an ambulance and reporting that the casualties of Americans in the fighting were "the sort you never know whether to classify as hysterical or the ultimate act of bravery." (pg. 124)

George Orwell joined the war with a faction that was caught up in the Barcelona May Days, in which Soviet-backed factions fought against other factions of the Republican Army and purged them violently (pg. 106). Orwell escaped because he was recovering from being shot by a sniper. He later wrote many reflections of that time, including Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, which includes my favorite story of humanity in wartime (part three of that essay), which explains why it is impossible to shoot at a man who is not wearing any pants. The essay captures the feeling of disillusion and frustration at the squabbling and propaganda machine of the Republican Army.

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