Homage to Catalonia
We review George Orwell’s account of wartime Spain
By Duncan Rhodes
Orwell’s account of his time fighting in Spain and how it shaped his view of the world.
Homage to Catalonia is an essential text for anyone hoping to understand Barcelona’s history, and with it the major ideological conflict of the 20th Century – that of fascism vs. socialism – which was played out in the Spanish Civil War. It was a conflict which no one saw with more clarity than English author Eric Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell.
Orwell had travelled to Spain in December of 1936 to report on the Civil War as a journalist, but he was swept away by the revolutionary atmosphere that had taken hold of Barcelona and decided to enlist as a soldier. At that time Anarchists and Communists ruled the city, having risen up in support of the socialist Republican government which, no sooner had it been voted in (in July 1936), was under threat from a fascist-backed Nationalist military coup.
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle… every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle… every church had been gutted… every shop and cafe had an inscription saying it had been collectivised… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the eye and treated you as an equal. Nobody said ‘Senor’ or ‘Don’; everyone called everyone else ‘comrade’ or ‘thou’…. Almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. Down the Ramblas… the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”
Orwell starts his adventure by signing up for one of the many anti-fascist parties, the POUM (‘Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista’ or ‘Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification’) and the start of Homage to Catalonia details his military training (such as it was) in the Lenin Barracks. After much delay (Orwell writes with great frustration on the Spanish policy of putting everything off until manana), the author makes it to the front. Here he experiences more frustration. As he describes, the socialists and fascists were locked in a stand off, lacking the weaponry and will to make inroads on the enemy. Apart from the occasional sortie Orwell experienced very little action, but plenty of cold and hunger and lice; much of the early part of the book is given over to describing the boredom and hardship of ‘stationary warfare’.
The daily hardship and inglorious nature of war aside, the point that comes across most from Homage to Catalonia as Orwell’s experiences unfold is just how murky a business the Spanish Civil War really was; the divisions in ideologies, political machinations, betrayals and overall tenure of chaos build with every chapter. When Orwell returns to Barcelona, and becomes embroiled in the May Days streetfighting, the author himself becomes a victim to the fickle and capricious nature of war. The POUM, for which he has been fighting, is denounced by Stalinists as an undercover Fascist organization:
“A cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated… You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police… 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.”
When the fighting in Barcelona ceased and Orwell returned to the front, the author had the misfortune of being hit by a sniper’s bullet in the throat. As we know he survived, but after passing through various hospitals in Catalonia he returns to Barcelona to find the POUM has not only been denounced, but now has been suppressed and its members – many of whom were obliviously risking their lives on the front fighting fascism – are being rounded up and imprisoned as fascists.
Orwell had no choice but to flee Spain with his wife, who had (rather rashly) accompanied him to Barcelona, and is able to pass through to France without hindrance. He returned to England and began work on his account of the war immediately. (Although his usual publisher, refused to publish the book due to its criticism of the Communists and it wasn’t until much later that anyone paid the work any heed).
The value of Orwell’s resulting journal Homage to Catalonia can hardly be overstated when trying to decipher the events of those tumultous times in Spain. In a conflict involving so many different factions and subfactions, and with all the suppression of information, propaganda and intrigue generated by the warring ideologies of fascism and communism (- both sides allowed blind faith in their ideas to justify countless lies, along with much worse crimes) to read the account of someone like Orwell whose dedication to the veracity of what he witnessed, above any cause, is to blow through a fog of fabrication with a tornado of truth.
Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil were his first brush with the Stalin’s totalitarian vision of Communism, and undoubtedly these experiences were crucial in formulating the ideas behind Animal Farm and 1984, almost undisputedly the two most important works of literature of the 20th Century. For this reason alone it is well worth reading Homage to Catalonia to see the politics of the time unfold as chronicled by the man who understood their madness the most clearly.
Orwell’s love of Spain and Catalonia (he doesn’t distinguish heavily between the Spanish and Catalan cultures) come through in his, sometimes frustrating, but always affectionate brushes with the locals (at least the ones who aren’t trying to shoot or imprison him). However despite the name of the book there is little observation made about local culture and the portrait of Barcelona is of a city downtrodden by war, rather than a paean to its beauty. Amusingly Orwell does find time in his narrative to take a swipe at Gaudi, whose work he loathed.
“For the first time since I had been in Barcelona I went to have a look at the cathedral [La Sagrada Familia] – a modern cathedral, and one of the most hideous buildings in the world… Unlike most of the churches in Barcelona it was not damaged during the revolution – it was spared because of its ‘artistic value’, people said. I think the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.”
About the Author
Duncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.