George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

Homage to CataloniaEric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell, is justifiably praised as the finest political writer in the English language. Few escape high school without encountering one or both of Animal Farm and 1984, his unmatched fictive treatises on the evils of totalitarianism and the ease with which good intentions are arrogated by the corrupt and the greedy. Rather than waste any further words in service of his already mighty reputation, I will content myself by exhorting anyone and everyone to read and study him; there is, quite possibly, no writer more vitally important to the 21st century, and certainly none more important to the 20th, than George Orwell.

Homage to Catalonia, first published in 1938, recounts Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War, a minor prelude to the swelling act that saw Spain torn in two by a fascist group of Nationalists rebelling against the established Spanish Republic. The Nationalist cause was supported by Germany and Italy, and the Republican cause by Soviet Russia. The official stance of the remainder of Europe and the League of Nations was one of neutrality, which immediately raises the question: what is Orwell, a British citizen, doing in Spain? “I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at the time and in that atmosphere it seemed like the only conceivable thing to do.” In fact, the process of getting to Spain from Britain was difficult, and required much petitioning on Orwell’s part, but that he saw this ostensibly internecine struggle as something of vital importance speaks to his character and antipathy towards fascism.

The first half of the book is devoted to a description of his experiences in combat, which range from the absurd to the harrowing to the comical. Thus we get chillingly detailed descriptions of the deprivations of life on the front – lice so numerous and potent they become, like the cold, a fact of life – coupled with regular assessments of the inadequacy and unpreparedness of the Republican army: guns older than Orwell himself, troops more likely to shoot comrades than fascists, and replacements as young as fifteen and of an average age well below twenty. It is when Orwell is wounded – a shot through the neck that he is exceedingly luck to have survived – and forced to return from the front that the insights become less about the war itself and more about the various factions endeavoring to wage it.

The Republican cause is made up of political groups whose constituent’s affiliations range from bourgeois to communist and, on the extreme left, anarchist. These groups include the POUM (Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification), the UGT (Spanish Worker’s Party), the CNT (National Confederation of Labor) and the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation), making up what Orwell calls Spain’s “disease of acronyms.” Upon returning from the front, Orwell learns that the Popular Army, an arm of the Communists, is better armed and better outfitted than his own POUM, despite the fact that these former have taken no part in the fight against Franco. Worse, the Popular Army is the beneficiary of a massive propaganda campaign seeking to discredit the POUM. “From much of this propaganda you would have derived the impression that there was something disgraceful in having gone to the front voluntarily and something praiseworthy in waiting to be conscripted,” writes Orwell. From this time on, an atmosphere of distrust and unrest permeates Republican Spain, as those loyal to the anti-fascist cause are nonetheless locked away or shot for their (real or imagined) sympathies with anarchism or Trotskyism.

The political climate in Spain was such that a Trotskyist could not be denounced for being a Trotskyist or an anarchist for being an anarchist; these accusations would mean little to a country on the brink of social revolution. Instead, charges of fascism, or fascist collusion, are leveled at political dissidents, with no regard for the veracity of the allegations:

It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise. One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.

For such cowardliness, Orwell has little patience, but he offers us this small hope: “Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.”

Orwell transforms this minor record of his personal experiences into a devastating indictment of the hypocrisies of warfare, extrapolating from this conflict the essentially timeless aspects of war more generally and offering to us, in miniature, the limpid prose and sharp thinking that characterize his later works.