In the story, the two principal characters, the old man and the soldier, discuss the advance of the fascist army and the impending war. The old man, like many of his neighbors, has been forced to leave his home. His plight calls attention to the ways in which war contributes to the disintegration of the social structure. Without family, the old man is likely to become one of the first casualties of the war, as he doesn't possess the physical strength to make the trek to safety.
During their conversation, the soldier (also the narrator of the story) asks the old man about his political affiliation. The latter replies that he is "without politics." The soldier's question is significant, for the war is a conflict between two political ideologies.
One can argue that the soldier asks the question out of a sense of preservation. Yet, the old man's obvious emotional trauma is apparent. He has had to flee his home and has already traveled 12 kilometers (about 7 1/2 miles) on foot. At seventy-six years old, he can go no further and is certainly no threat to the soldier's cause. Yet, the soldier is wary. Inevitably, his question highlights how war erodes political and social trust.
The question is also typical for Hemingway, who uses the smallest of details to drive home a critical point. Here, the question highlights the political divide that precipitated the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).
Many historians believe that the war was one of the precursors to World War II. The Spanish Civil War pitted the Republicans (the left-leaning Spanish government) against the Nationalists (right-leaning revolutionaries). The Republicans were supported by Mexico and the Soviet Union, while the Nationalists had the support of Italy, Germany, and the Holy See.
In all, the Spanish Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in Western Europe after WWI. It led to widespread atrocities, the deaths of more than 200,000 civilians, and the displacement of millions of Spaniards. The story hints at this through the seemingly innocent interaction between the soldier and the old man.