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on 24 February 2008
A recent trip to Barcelona made me pull this book off my bookshelf, where it had been gathering dust since I first read it as a teenager 12 years ago. At the time I was very much into Orwell - his socialism, his hatred of Capitalism and his championing of the working classes. Though writing half a century earlier, he seemed to voice much of what myself and the other youths I hung around with believed.

Out of all Orwell's books that I read, I found this the least enjoyable and the most hard-going. I couldn't make head nor tail of who the different sides were, who was fighting who, what each side was fighting for and the complicated party politics of a Spain that existed nearly 60 years in the past.

The book is akin to Down and Out in Paris and London in that Orwell throws himself into an impoverished and dangerous situation which is not necessary for one of his social class and talents. Yet he does it anyway, mainly, I think, to provide the raw experience from which he can create these masterful literary accounts. In Paris and London Orwell writes about poverty and homelessness. Here he is writing about a war which, at first at least, he sees as being between 'the Fascists' and 'the working classes' (a perfect Orwellian subject). In the earlier book Orwell becomes a tramp. Here he becomes a soldier - a militiaman in a foreign army. Strange and noble that he should suffer so much for his art. However, 12 years on from my first reading, I can't help viewing Orwell's behaviour as a slightly patronising kind of 'social tourism'. When he has had enough, Orwell is able to, and in fact does, escape back to a comfortable middle-class existence back in England. This escape clause is not open to the real tramps, 'peasants' and militiamen he mixes with. This is not a severe criticism, though. Undoubtedly Orwell did genuinely care about the social injustices he witnessed and he was clearly trying to draw attention to them and strive for reform (he was instrumental in setting up the NHS in the 1940s).

This time I understood little more of what was going on than first time round. However, despite my lack of understanding, and despite having a markedly different political stance than I did as a teenager, I found the book to be much more rewarding this time round. Orwell's matter-of-fact reportage of trench warfare and street fighting is fascinating. His vivid descriptions of the antiquated weapons, attacking an enemy position, the freezing nights and the human lice - not to mention of getting shot through the throat ("The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail") - are vivid and eloquent. Also, you can see here embryonic elements that made it into Nineteen Eighty-Four (the systematic suppression and even murder of those that disagree with the state view, for instance).

This time round I was gripped all the way to the last sentence, by which time Orwell has returned home and finds England "sleeping the deep deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs." Chilling when you reflect that this book was published in 1938, only a year before WW2 broke out.
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I first purchased this book in 1998 having just visited Barcelona. I read the first couple of pages, put it down and it stayed unread for 18 years. I like George Orwell as a writer and thinker and have read a lot of his books but this one just did not grab me.

I have had a second go at it and persevered, finally getting to the end. I still found it difficult to maintain my interest but in the end it is an important work

I knew that there was a Civil War in Spain that related to the struggle for supremacy between fascists led by Franco, supported by Hitler and republicans, supported by various anarchist, socialist and communist factions. Many people enlisted from abroad to help fight fascism, including George Orwell.

However, this book does not present nearly as neat a picture of the Spanish Civil War as the one I have just presented. This book, written while the War was still being fought, describes Orwell's activities fighting in a militia group in Eastern Spain where he endured little danger but much cold and hunger. Despite this, he enjoyed much camaraderie with his fellow militia men and valued the social equality that prevailed.

The more disturbing aspect of the book was more to do with the infighting among the various factions fighting fascism. There was little love between the communists and anarchists. The unit in which Orwell served, the POUM, was a Marxist group that eventually became seen (wrongly) to be Trotskyists secretly in league with the fascists. In a strange kind of way, it reminded me of the conflicts between the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front in Life of Brian. There is a very confusing array of acronyms and initials in this book. The really disturbing thing is that Orwell might have been arrested and imprisoned for belonging to the wrong faction by the side he thought he was fighting for.

I think it is this aspect of the book that makes it so prophetic for Orwell's future writing in his books, 1984 and Animal Farm. For that reason, I am glad that I stuck with it.
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This is a most extraordinary book. I had read it years ago, and decided to re-read it during a visit to Spain. I had forgotten primarily how extremely funny it is, I was sat laughing and laughing and feeling guilty, whether people thought I was awful for laughing over a book about a horrific civil war. But Orwell’s descriptions of the efforts of his rifle-less comrades to persuade the enemy encamped on a nearby hill by shouting through a megaphone that they had buttered toast to eat should they care to join them – which wasn’t even true – are impossible not to chortle at. And the attempts at practising a manoeuvre where the “enemy” would wear white arm bands. Except no one could find the white arm bands. I glazed over, with Orwell’s permission, for a central few chapters where he dives into the inner workings of the political parties involved. I seemed to grasp that it was fascists against everyone else who were also fighting on several fronts amongst themselves and thereby dooming themselves to failure. Finally the author takes a bullet through his neck and gives us a vivid description of what it is like to be shot. Throughout, there is an extraordinary real picture of what it is really like to be in an army, in a trench – the stench, the cold, the horrible food, the lice, the fear but above all the boredom. There is also, from Orwell, the dawning of a potential nightmare world in which a Leader controls the future and the past, and if he says two and two are five then that will be the case. Which will resonate with everyone who has read 1984.
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on 2 September 2015
Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia

‘Anarchism is deeply rooted in Spain,’ Orwell points out in this book, although it was the Communists who were the better organised, had a programme and provided the military hardware, enabling Spain to fight against Fascism. But as in his later novel Animal Farm, when the war was over it was difficult to tell who was who or even which side had won.

The first part of the book is the more interesting from a purely human perspective, the second from a political one. Orwell tells of his enchantment with the ordinary Catalan working people, where ‘even the bootblacks had been collectivised’ and ‘servile and ceremonial forms of speech’ were anathema. Of the poorly equipped POUM militia, including children untrained in handling weapons, he paints a sympathetic picture. In appalling conditions above Huesca , with ancient corroded rifles, frozen and half-starved, ‘afterwards we learned that the action had been a success.’
Later he is shot through the neck and misses death by a fraction of a millimetre, following which he is obliged to submit to being moved to various field dressing stations and crowded hospitals over rutted or non-viable roads.

The political in-fighting between Anarchists, Communists, the CNT, the UGT, the POUM, the PSUC, the FAI is even more intense than the fight against the Fascists or Franco’s Fifth Column. Lies and treachery, civil slaughter and arbitrary imprisonment threaten any unity and anarchy rules. In the end, as POUM becomes discredited as Trotskyite, Orwell and his wife escape to France, fleeing imprisonment, interrogation, torture and possibly death.

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Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia
‘Anarchism is deeply rooted in Spain,’ Orwell points out in this book, although it was the Communists who were the better organised, had a programme and provided the military hardware, enabling Spain to fight against Fascism. But as in his later novel Animal Farm, when the war was over it was difficult to tell who was who or even which side had won.
The first part of the book is the more interesting from a purely human perspective, the second from a political one. Orwell tells of his enchantment with the ordinary Catalan working people, where ‘even the bootblacks had been collectivised’ and ‘servile and ceremonial forms of speech’ were anathema. Of the poorly equipped POUM militia, including children untrained in handling weapons, he paints a sympathetic picture. In appalling conditions above Huesca , with ancient corroded rifles, frozen and half-starved, ‘afterwards we learned that the action had been a success.’
Later he is shot through the neck and misses death by a fraction of a millimetre, following which he is obliged to submit to being moved to various field dressing stations and crowded hospitals over rutted or non-viable roads.

The political in-fighting between Anarchists, Communists, the CNT, the UGT, the POUM, the PSUC, the FAI is even more intense than the fight against the Fascists or Franco’s Fifth Column. Lies and treachery, civil slaughter and arbitrary imprisonment threaten any unity and anarchy rules. In the end, as POUM becomes discredited as Trotskyite, Orwell and his wife escape to France, fleeing imprisonment, interrogation, torture and possibly death.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 April 2014
This vivid account of a few months spent fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War reminded me that Orwell was a talented journalist as well as a writer of satirical fiction. He pulls no punches in describing the chaos and lack of resources in periods of mainly uncomfortable inaction punctuated with occasional hairy sorties.

My respect for his judgement was shaken a little by some of his observations - for instance, that he should find it "rather fun....in a boy-scoutish" kind of way to crawl about trying to take pot shots at the enemy without being hit himself, or the unconscious elitism of "Any public school OTC in England is far more like a modern army than we were." He admits to longing for a powerful gun with which to pulverise the other side, but redeems himself with an admission of real fear when he has to expose himself to enemy fire. Similarly, his account of the experience of being wounded is interesting, together with such insights as the camaraderie between soldiers who know they would be shooting at each other in a different situation. His description of Barcelona as a briefly classless society in which there was no rank or status, and people treated each other as equals, is thought-provoking as regards "what might have been", but clearly seemed too utopian to last, particularly since the bourgeoisie was simply lying low.

It is revealing that the chronic shortage of weapons may have been part of a deliberate government plan to prevent groups of anarchists or pro-revolutionary Marxists from gaining influence in the struggle. However, Orwell's self-confessed lack of interest in the political side of the war is both surprising and disappointing, since it is clearly crucial to an understanding of what was going on in this complex struggle, and the outcome of events. Thus, the dramatic chapters on the counterproductive riots between anti-fascist groups in Barcelona - perhaps akin to fights between different revolutionary sects in modern-day Syria - are quite hard to understand. Orwell goes some way to redress this in the two Appendices, which were chapters integrated into the original text, but the result is needlessly disjointed and still somewhat unclear.

Although he produced this book in 1938, too early to judge the tragic outcome, at least Orwell had the prescience to predict that Franco would win, thus setting Spain back for decades.
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on 30 March 2014
I had read a few books previous to this book about the Spanish Civil War and Revolution and by far this book was the most easy to read. (being easy to read has its ups but also its downs ... I think). The other books I read were about the background to the Nationalist/Francoist forces and also the background to the Anarcho Syndicalist Unions. The Francoist forces seemed to be of the old aristocracy, the Catholic base and the monarchists. The Anarcho Syndicalists Unions were the oppressed working class looking for a better share of the spoils of Spanish riches. Orwell doesn't really mention in any great detail the background to this conflict, instead he sort of joins it once it has started. He proclaims himself to be an English socialist but seems of a well educated background although his style of writing is very accessible. His short concise sentences were a pleasure to read and very seldom did I find myself lost by his style. I don't really think I should talk about the contents of the book because you will find them out by reading the book yourself. All I would say is compared to other books written about the conflict that I have read this was a dawdle to absorb. He gave a day by day account of being in the losing side's Militia and spoke of the thrown together aspects of the Republican militia. Also I think he gave some insight into the interparty disputes that led up to the barricades in Barcelona and the big stand off that took place while there was a war going on. It must have been a wild time to be in Spain and I doubt if it has really been forgotten. On the whole I would say read this book if you want an immediate insight into the everyday soldiers life in the Republican Militia. On the other hand to find out more about how things got so polarized you would be better reading the "Spanish Labyrinth " by Brennan.
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on 29 August 2010
Terrific insight. The book quickly takes you into the atmosphere and mood of the region during this time. If you are new to the subject, don't worry about who's who. Just go with the flow of the story.
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on 14 May 2013
Homage to Catalonia is Orwell at his best, a book which tells the true story of Orwell's time serving with the POUM in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Orwell's Group, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, was a revolutionary group which fought alongside a mixture of socialists, communists and anarchists against the fascists led by General Franco.

Orwell served on the front line and witnessed the injustice of the war first hand and covers it in a way that no journalist could. So dedicated was Orwell to the war effort, he was almost killed when a fascist sniper shot him in the throat while he was at the front line.

The big surprise is the disconnect between what's happening at the front and what's happening in Barcelona, behind the lines. Orwell shows that the war was not fought with human lives at all, but with propaganda between the differing anti-Nationalist armies, propaganda that caused such a disconnect between each party that it may have lost them the war.

Whether you care about its political niceties or not, Homage to Catalonia is deeply gripping and a powerful glimpse into a window of history that, if you're like me, you've never thought to open. But I can almost guarantee that by the time you get to the end of it, you'll care deeply about the political niceties. Viva Poum!
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on 14 May 2014
The writing is as incisive and honest as always with Orwell. I never really understood the Spanish Civil War until reading this (its as unstraight-forward as Ireland). I managed to hold off reading the two appendices until I had read the body of the book but much of the book would have been clearer at the time if I had read the appendices first. After all I am reading nearly 80 years after the war and the relationships between the POUM, the CNT, the PSUC and even who they were is all new to me.An incredibly complicated war with Franco being supported by most of the army, some of the Navy and airforce, the Church, the Falangists, the monarchists, and practically every other country but most effectively by Italy and Germany. The republican side consisted of the Workers (trade Unions), the Communists, the Anarchists,the Basques, the Catalans, most of the navy and airforce,and the Trotskyist communists (POUM) supported only by Mexico and Russia although many non fascist Italians, and Germans fought with the republic. Orwell's great writing means that one keeps enough interest to eventually understand the complications , and to understand that Russia's support unintentionally contributed to the republicans losing the war.
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on 11 October 2010
This book describes how George Orwell came to Spain and joined up with one of the groups who were fighting, his experiences at the front and then when he was wounded and went back to be with his wife. It was a good book as obviously he had been right there, so you knew that what he wrote was true, from his perspective anyway. It was quite reflective in parts as well, which was good, reflecting on why they were fighting and what it was all for. I did get a bit confused about all the political groups - but I think thats just due to my lack of knowledge rather than the writing. Recommended to anyone who wants to know about the Spanish Civil war from someone who was actually there - and also to anyone who likes to read good writing! :)
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