Homage to Catalonia, written by George Orwell, is one of the most important documents of its kind. It is about a period of time Orwell spent fighting in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. While there, he was almost fatally wounded by taking a bullet to the throat. This event, while quite painful, did little to dampen his voice. He was told he would never talk again, but little by little, he regained his ability to speak. The doctors said he was quite lucky to have survived his wound. Orwell couldn’t help but thinking that if he had been truly lucky, he would not have been shot at all. Orwell prefaced his description of his ordeal stating, “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.”
The Spanish Civil War was one of the most decisive events of the 20th century. While the memory of this event fades into the background, reading this book brings it vividly back to life. One is transported in time immediately back to the trenches of the battlefields with their stench of human waste and long periods of boredom and sudden periods of danger and to the turbulent streets of Barcelona where rival factions fought each other for control of the Telephone Exchange Building. The importance of such a record would be difficult to overstate.
As one reads the record of the events taking place in Spain, taken from Orwell’s direct experience, one cannot escape noticing the similarity to events taking place in America today in the 21st century. As Lionel Trilling indicated in his excellent introduction to the book, Homage to Catalonia is a testimony to the nature of modern political life. He observes that politics is a relatively new thing in the world, and we do not yet know very much about it. That is hard to understand nowadays, given the 24 hour news cycle and the complete immersion of politics on the cable news television stations. Ideas play a large role in politics and have great power. These ideas are directly connected to another kind of power that is described in the book: the power of force.
In 1937, Orwell went to Spain to observe the civil war and to write about it. When he arrived in Barcelona, he got so caught up in the revolutionary furor that he decided to stay and fight. He joined the militia as private. The militia unit he joined by chance was a unit known as POUM (Party of Marxist Unification). The Spanish Civil war was a fight in defense of democracy against the Fascist enemy led by its chief proponent, Generalissimo Franco.
There were many rival factions taking up the fight against the Fascists: POUM, communists, Trotskyites, and anarchists. We see some of these same echoes today in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. There are many and various factions protesting the inequality of the 1% of the wealthiest Americans versus the 99% of the rest. These inequalities have brought great unrest to our country along with high unemployment, economic hardship, and social injustice. The militaristic mien of the jackbooted SWAT Teams breaking up the demonstrators in Oakland, Boston, and New York are reminiscent of Franco’s fascist brigades.
When Orwell first arrived in Barcelona, outward appearances revealed it to be a town where the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Nobody said, “Senor” or “Don” anymore, but rather, “comrade.” Practically everyone wore rough working class clothes. Orwell recognized it immediately as situation worth fighting for. It was a worker’s state where the entire bourgeoisie had either left, been killed, or came over to the worker’s side. There was no unemployment and the cost of living was extremely low. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In barber shops (all barbers were anarchists) there were notices that barbers were no longer slaves. Orwell said, “A fat man eating quail while children are begging is a disgusting sight. But you are less likely to see it when you are within sight of guns.”
Orwell was quickly sent to the front to fight in the trenches. In trench warfare, according to him, five things are of paramount importance: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy, in that order. The real preoccupation with both armies was trying to keep warm. Firewood was the only thing that really mattered. The trenches were more than 500 yards apart and in those circumstances no one gets hit except by accident. He describes a particular experience that eerily presages passages from 1984: “In the barn where we waited the place was alive with rats. They came swarming out of the ground on every side. If there is anything I hate more than another, it is a rat running over me in the darkness.” This articular horror is to found behind the doors of room 101.
In another scene, Orwell described a maneuver where he and his fellow soldiers were to attack a fascist position at night. The ground was muddy and wet and he was sodden from head to foot and was weighted down with a heavy rifle and bayonet and 150 cartridges. The patrol was successful in overrunning the enemy redoubt and had the fascists on the run. Suddenly the command to retire came. As Orwell and his men left the parapet and headed back across the 200 yards to their own parapet the fascists reappeared and began to attack the patrol. He had thought earlier that he could not run being as laden down as he was, but, “I learned you can always run when you think you have 50 armed men after you.”
Barcelona is a town with a long history of street fighting. While on leave in Barcelona after serving three and one half months at the front, the last thing Orwell wanted was to be mixed up in some meaningless street fight. To be marching up the street behind red flags inscribed with elevating slogans, and then be bumped off from an upper window by some total stranger with a sub-machine gun- that was not his idea of a useful way to die.
When Orwell saw an actual flesh and blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, he did not have to ask himself which side he was on. Completely innocent people were being arrested owing to police bungling. He reached the point that every time a door banged he reached for his pistol.
Foreign journalists in Spain were hopelessly at the mercy of the Ministry of Propaganda, though one would think that the very name of this ministry would be a sufficient warning. Watching a fat Russian agent explaining that a particular event was an anarchist plot was the first time Orwell, according to his account, had seen a person whose profession was telling lies, unless of course, one counts journalists. One is reminded again of today’s Fox News which studies have shown its viewers to be the most uniformed. Its entertainers, posing as newscasters, have a way of stating their biased opinions as fact.
The fighting began on July 18, 1936. Most anti-fascists in Europe felt a “thrill” of hope. Here at last was democracy standing up to Fascism. For years, the so called democratic countries had been surrendering to Fascism: The Japanese, Hitler, and Mussolini. When Franco tried to overthrow the center left government in Spain, the Spanish people rose up against him. Franco was not really comparable to Hitler or Mussolini. His rising was a military mutiny backed by the aristocracy and the Church. It was an attempt not so much to install fascism but to restore feudalism. The Spanish working class resisted by revolt. Land was seized by the peasants and factories were seized by trade unions. Churches were destroyed and priests were driven out or killed. In certain areas of revolt as many as three thousand people died on the streets in a single day. Men and women armed with sticks of dynamite rushed across open squares and stormed stone buildings held by soldiers with machine guns. Anarchists and socialists were the backbone of the movement. The entire issue had been reduced to Fascism versus democracy.
The war, in which Orwell claims to have played so ineffectual a part, left him with memories that were mostly evil, and yet he did not wish that he had missed it. The whole experience left him with not less, but more belief in the decency of human beings
One thought on “Homage to Catalonia”
I appreciate your reading my poetry, Benn, and I’m also grateful for having read this wonderful article. I had not known of Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War, let alone known that he’d written a book about it. Thank you for the education and inspiration!