Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

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Book 4

But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

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42 thoughts on “Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

  1. I agree with you. The book is entertaining, which is a bit strange considering the subject.
    He was wrong on a few issues, like anything was better than fascism, when, at the same time, the purges were happening in Russia, but nobody knew about them, so we have to keen those in mind. Far-anything, right or left, is just as bad. Also, the 5th column was quite active at that time and thousands of people were doing underground resistance in Republican occupied territories, just as there were leftist doing underground resistance on the other side. Not a lot of work was done about that though, which is a shame because it is fascinating.

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    • Yes, extremism is extremism whichever side it’s on, and it’s actually hard to see much difference between communism and fascism in action. Communism is a nicer theory, perhaps, but doesn’t seem to work in practice. Interesting – I haven’t come across the 5th column in anything I’ve read so far. I see you say not much work has been done on it, but is there a book or source you’d recommend?

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      • I’ve read a very good article on this:
        Sofia Rodrigues Lopez and Antonio Cazorla Sanchez – Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-9 – in Journal of Contemporary History, 2018

        I’m not sure if you can access it somewhere, I could download it from my university’s library, as a student. As far as I know there are no books on the 5th column.

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        • Thanks for that, Anca. Unfortunately I can’t access it anywhere, but I did find a kind of synopsis of it which was interesting in itself, though short. It would be a good subject for a book – either factual or fiction, in fact!

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  2. Orwell was a good storyteller, FictionFan, and that always helps. And I think it was very wise indeed to focus in the book on his own experiences, and discuss the politics in the appendix. To me, history is a series of personal stories when it’s done well, and that’s what it sounds like this is. It’s really interesting to see this look at one aspect of the war – something we don’t generally learn all that much about. It’s a deeper look, and that interests me, too. I can see why you liked it so much.

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    • Yes, he was a writer who went to war rather than a soldier who decided to write, and that comes through in his storytelling. Sticking the politics at the back certainly makes the book more approachable, especially to people who are more interested in the experience of war rather than the detailed history of one particular war. I was expecting propaganda, but for the most part he avoids that.

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  3. This is the only Orwell book that I haven’t read yet. I’m very much looking forward to reading it, even more so after reading your post. I love Orwell and think he comes across as a very intelligent, balanced guy in his writing 🙂

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  4. As a child, I was once in hospital with an elderly lady who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Communists (not sure which faction, was too ignorant to ask at the time). She said that if she’d known what Stalin was up to at the time and what Communism would bring to Romania later, she wouldn’t have done it. Her husband was later imprisoned for ‘anti-Communist activities’, i.e. for disagreeing with the corruption of their ideals. So I can really understand the disillusionment. And Orwell was 33 at the time, not quite a child anymore.

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    • That’s the problem with communism – in theory, it’s such an attractive idea, so it’s easy to see why people got swept up in it, especially back before we knew about the real horrors that were happening under Stalin. The tragedy of fighting for something and then discovering that things are even worse must be heart-breaking. I’m no fan of fascism either, but I’m not convinced fascist Italy or Spain even at their worst were ever as bad as life under Soviet communism. German Nazism is a whole different ballgame however. Give me moderate democracy every time!

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  5. I’m going to have to do my own Spanish Civil War challenge I can see! I haven’t read nearly enough Orwell and this sounds an excellent account. I like the idea of leaving the analysis to the end, also making it a good reference I should think?

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    • Yes, it’s much easier to find the political stuff if it’s all in the appendices than having to trawl through the whole book. And it makes the book much more readable for people who are interested in the personal side of the war rather than the political issues. I’m loving the challenge so far, especially now I can get to the fiction… 😀

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    • No, I don’t think they met – not until long after they’d both left Spain anyway. The left was so fragmented that even the international volunteers were split up among all the different factions.

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  6. I read this a while back. The International Brigades have been seriously romanticised in Britain, and I think the Republicans in general have been romanticised, especially in areas like mine which were very badly hit by the Depression. OK, compared to Franco & co, I suppose anyone would look good, but I don’t think we get a very balanced picture.

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    • Yes, I think the fact that WW2 happened immediately afterwards and made the Allies so anti-fascist meant there was a sort of sympathy for communism that was totally unjustified in reality. From the history I’ve read so far, the left in Spain was just as violent as the right, and I’m not wholly convinced they would have been better than Franco. At least the fascists were competent! But between them, they simply remind me that the moderate centre of a robust democracy is the best place to be, despite our moans about our governments… 😀

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  7. I found this one to be a really interesting read too. I couldn’t help thinking that the experiences that Orwell wrote about must have contributed to his early death from TB, all those homeless doss houses he slept in must have been riddled with it.

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    • Interesting – yes, that sounds quite possible. I’m sure having been injured and spending time in hospitals and then later visiting prisons won’t have helped. His constitution was probably seriously weakened by it all.

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  8. Orwell’s honesty about his experiences in Spain is especially impressive considering the time he wrote it – as usual people wanted to see things as either right or wrong and didn’t want to hear about the messy complexities.

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    • I was very impressed by his honesty – I was expecting it to be full of propaganda, but he really avoids it for the most part, although his own political views are quite clear. But it was interesting to see his growing disillusionment at the factionalism on the left.

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  9. Although I’m not very interested in the Spanish Civil War, I’m tempted to read this. I’ve just finished Orwell’s Facing Unpleasant Facts, which was excellent and included an essay on the war too. His writing style is such a joy to read, clear and honest. He certainly lived an interesting life.

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    • I really don’t think you have to be interested in the Spanish Civil War, or know anything about it, to enjoy this one – the way he sticks all the politics at the back makes the bulk of it a personal memoir rather than a history, and very readable. I haven’t read much of his stuff – just the biggies, 1984 and Animal Farm – but I was thinking I must add some of his other stuff to my next Classics Club list

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  10. I recently enjoyed Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, so I’m keen to read Orwell’s account. I’m usually only interested in more detailed politics when it touches on areas of interest to me (local or family history) so I’ll see how motivated I am to read the appendices. I do like the idea of having a story focused account of his experiences – that works for me!

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    • Glad you enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls – I think I might re-read it at the end of this challenge now that I know a little more about the factual side. The appendices aren’t too long – this is definitely much more a memoir than a history, and works great as a companion to the hefty academic tomes. But it also works on its own, because in a sense it could be any civil war. However, you may find that you do have some contact with the SCW – Scotland contributed more people per size of population to the International Brigades than any other country apparently. I have one coming later in the challenge called Homage to Caledonia which covers that subject… 😀

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  11. Thanks for this excellent account of another Orwell and another book about the Spanish Civil War. I’m reading the Payne book now, and enjoying it very much, so thanks for that lead a while back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you’re enjoying the Payne. I’m currently reading his biography of Franco – early days but it’s looking good so far. I’m certain you’d enjoy Homage to Catalonia too if you ever get a chance to fit it in.

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