Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

  1. October 22, 2017 at 11:27 am

    As a child, I met a few Romanians who had gone to fight on the socialist/communist side in the Spanish Civil War – a war which seemed to capture the imagination of a lot of other European nations at the time. Ironically, these were then people who struggled with the communist dictatorship in Romania later on. I suppose any ideology can be subverted by those in power. Orwell is very honest as a writer – to the point where he doesn’t do himself any favours – but it is this honesty which is so often missing from journalism and memoirs nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      I suppose that this war remained in memories because intellectuals from various countries enrolled on the Republican side or wrote about it. Bernanos (although his book is unreadable), Malraux, Hemingway, Orwell are the ones that come to mind but I’m sure there are others. Add Garcia Lorca’s death to the mix…I should read L’Espoir and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

      I love Orwell’s style and his honesty. For a man of this era, he sure isn’t afraid to show his weaknesses. And as Romain Gary wrote it:
      “La faiblesse a toujours vécu d’imagination … La force n’a jamais rien inventé, parce qu’elle croit se suffire … C’est toujours la faiblesse qui a du génie …”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. October 22, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Orwell is one of my favourite authors too, because of his capacity to see the big picture through smaller details. It’s a shame he died so young.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2017 at 8:28 pm

      In French, since story and history are said with the same word, we usually talk about “mélanger la petite histoire avec la grande”. La petite histoire being one’s personal story and la grande being History.

      I fully agree with you, his untimely death is a real shame. I would have loved to read his thoughts about the Cold War, the Sixties and decolonisation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. October 22, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    Great commentary on this book.

    I have been meaning to read this one for a long time. Orwell was such an important writer. He has lessons for us. As you point out, these lessons apply to our own times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2017 at 8:25 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      I think you’d enjoy it, with your interest for history. It’s well-written and insightful. Plus it’s a short book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. October 22, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    I love Orwell for his honesty and his clarity too. Like you, I would have loved to meet him….

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2017 at 8:24 pm

      Exactly. He’s like Albert Camus. I would have loved to meet both of them.
      Or to be part of a conversation between Romain Gary and George Orwell. With their background and their clear vision, it would have been a fascinating moment. I wonder if they met when Gary was in London during WWII.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. October 22, 2017 at 7:53 pm

    I struggled through this as a teenager not because the writing wasn’t good (it was excellent) but because I found it hard to work out who was who

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2017 at 8:21 pm

      I can imagine it was a difficult read back then, especially without the internet. Wikipedia is a life saver for books like this as you get the info you need right away and it helps a lot.

      Plus, I don’t think it’s a book to read when you’re too young. Ready for a re-read? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. October 22, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    Great review, Emma! I read this book years ago but can remember it clearly, which is rare. The first-hand, honest, unsentimental details are so powerful, and a great antidote to the common glorification of warfare. I still remember the lice! And it is indeed sad that the Republican side was so divided between a bewildering range of parties. Thanks for reminding me about such a good read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2017 at 9:44 pm

      Thanks Andrew.

      I think it will stay with me too. I liked that he didn’t try to brag about his months on the front. He showed his experience as it was, boring, cold and not very heroic. (Although being there as a volunteer is already heroic to me)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. October 23, 2017 at 6:56 am

    I agree: I would have liked to have known Orwell. can’t say that about many writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 23, 2017 at 9:05 pm

      Exactly. He sounds human and approachable.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Desiree B. Silvage
    October 23, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Desiree B. Silvage
    October 23, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Reblogged this on LITERARY TRUCE.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. October 23, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    I first read this in my political-radical youth. Re-read it when I’d cooled that ardour a little, but it’s still a major work of historical-political reportage. As you and others here have said, it’s remarkable for its honesty – an aspect of Orwell’s work which is rarely found in other social commentators. (I did recently re-read The Road to Wigan Pier, however, and found it much less satisfactory: full of righteous indignation, but too cerebral and even, maybe a little condescending. Second half lapses into political polemic and is unreadable.) Such a shame that Catalonia looks like tearing itself apart, while central government mishandles the situation. I’m reminded of the sad fact in Homage that the Republicans lost as many men to the factional purges (anti-Trotskyist, etc.) as they did in battle against the fascists…Plus ça change…I have family living in suburbs of Barcelona, and worry about the worsening situation there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 23, 2017 at 9:16 pm

      I’m not sure I would have liked it as much as I did if I had read it when I was younger. I would have been lost in the political intricacies.

      Now I think I should re-read 1984.

      I followed your posts about moving your stepson (?) from Berlin to Barcelona. I understand why you’re worried. Things seem to go downhill pretty fast.
      (And now in Italy. Plus Scotland. I wonder when Corsicans will organise a referendum to ask for their independance)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. October 23, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    I’ve read quite a few continental books on the Spanish Civil War, most recently Max Aub’s Field of Honour and Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain, but have never read this. I really need to rectify that soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 23, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      I enjoyed Aub’s Exemplary Crimes, I wonder what he wrote about the Spanish Civil War. The Lydie Savayre is one I’d like to read too.

      Homage to Catalonia is not very long, I’d be happy to read your thoughts about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. October 30, 2017 at 6:17 pm

    Orwell is a true genius. I have also tried to write a blog on this complicated situation in Catalonia. Here’s the link https://ashukishore007.wordpress.com/2017/10/29/the-catalonian-independence-crisis-everything-you-should-know/?preview=true

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 31, 2017 at 8:25 pm

      He was a genius, as Lisa pointed it out earlier, it’s a pity he died so young.

      Like

  13. November 3, 2017 at 3:32 pm

    Very nice billet Emma, it brings the book back to me.

    Like Booker I also read this as a teenager (along with several other Orwell). I remember I found it heartbreaking. There was such idealism yet such impracticality, and while I didn’t know the details I knew of course that they lost.

    Like

    • November 4, 2017 at 8:25 am

      It’s a book that stays with you. I know it will stay with me because Orwell was so enthusiast about the cause and so honest. And also there’s the knowledge of the terrible ending.

      Land and Freedom by Ken Loach is a film that conveys the same feeling. All this waste in internal battles when the fascist enemy was so much worse.

      Like

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