on 6 December 2006
This book is truly essential reading for anyone interested in the Spanish Civil War, or for that matter anyone with an interest in war, Communism, Socialism, Anarchism or in Literature. Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil War is more than just a brilliant account of life in a civil war, it is a first hand account of the horrors of Stalinism, and Orwell's experiences in Spain explain why he later wrote his best known works, 1984 and Animal Farm, to warn of the dangers which he knew so well.
The book starts out recounting Orwell's experiences of arriving in Spain as an eager volunteer wanting to help fight Fascism. He is shocked to discover the disorganisation and inefficiency of the Republican militias. The book then goes on to give a telling account of the boredom of trench warfare, where the naïve Orwell wants to be able to kill at least one Fascist to do his part in the struggle for freedom, but ends up mainly having to contend with lice, rats and the freezing weather.
This alone might make for an interesting read, but the book really comes into its own in the latter chapters, where Orwell describes the struggle going on within the Republican controlled region of Spain. A wounded Orwell returns to Barcelona, where the Stalinists who have seized control of the government turn on their political rivals. Orwell is well placed to describe the May fighting between the Stalinist police who wish to enforce state control and the idealistic anarchists who want to defend their revolutionary gains.
Following the government victory, Orwell's small political party the POUM is made a scapegoat for the fighting and is outlawed. A stunned Orwell is forced to go on the run from the very Republic for which he had been so willing to risk his life. This makes for a damning indictment of totalitarianism that is still capable of gripping and infuriating the reader generations after the events described. Orwell shows that he is one of the finest writers in the English language, and this is probably his finest work, deserving to be read by all.
on 24 July 2003
No, I am not that slow a reader. I have a confession. I tend to prefer fiction, am sceptical about autobiographies and cringe at travelogues. Quite simply I nearly fell off my perch reading this book. I picked up Homage to Catalonia after reading Anthony Beevors history of the Spanish Civil War. I cannot emphasise how much enjoyed these books. Beevor is interesting and educational...I learnt a lot. Orwell...wow! Lucid, vivid, charmingly naive (and aware of it). Ultimately beautiful. Ever wonder why Barcelona has Placa George Orwell? Read this an find out. Read this book to find out what REAL anarchists stand for (actually read both Orwell and Beevor.
on 28 August 2012
Orwell had six rules for good writing:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print
Never use a long word where a short one will do
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
These rules pretty much describe Orwell's own writing style, which is simple and straightforward, yet elegant and engaging. He was a man who lived a very full and somewhat eccentric life, giving up a career in the Burmese police force to wander around Britain as a Tramp and to live in poverty in Paris. He was very connected to working people and so understandably was drawn to the socialist side against Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9).
This is a remarkably detailed account of an ordinary foot soldier's life in wartime - comparable to Robert Graves' `Goodbye to All That' about his time in the trenches in WW1. Orwell doesn't have the big picture of how the war is going or what the strategy is but can see the hopeless organisation and pitiful logistics of the Socialists. He's cold, hungry, ill clothed and badly armed but it's remarkable how cheerful he and his comrades remain. I would guess that this is an almost universal account of the nonsense of war from a soldier's point of view.
In the second part of the book he goes on leave to Barcelona and gives an account of the complex political rivalry between the socialist factions. As an account of the home front this is less successful as the political infighting seems ridiculously petty and un-affecting compared to the soldier's life. Eventually however the group to which Orwell belongs (POUM) losses the political fight and becomes a banned organisation so that he has to flee Spain to avoid arrest.
In many ways this is bang up-to-date - I can well believe that anti-government groups in, say, the Arab spring are very much like Orwell's socialists - fervent for their cause, but badly equipped and divided politically. To that extent this is a very modern book that has some universal truths about revolution and political change and which is well worth reading.
on 21 April 2001
The Spanish Civil War of 1936, might make your average 21st Century schoolboy scratch his head in ignorance, and half-imagine some sunny gun battles around the swimming pool of a rowdy Benidorm hotel. But to the idealistic and humanitarian George Orwell, it was the long-awaited chance to do his bit against the ever growing threat of Fascism; the political 'desease' as he saw it, that would eventually explode across history with the rise of Hitler. What follows is a book of two blurred but seperate parts. The first, being Orwell's diary account of his experiences in the ugly, unromantic, and at most times, incredibly dreary reality of a Spanish trench under-fire.
Orwell's gift of description, and his honest, endearing attempts to make sense of the human and political chaos that ensues, makes this first part of the book a fascinating insight into a war that has been almost blotted from history by the enormity of world war two.
In the following chapters (added on as appendixes) we are given a frank lecture on the political meat of the war itself. This highly informative catalogue of the many bewildering factions of the conflict: the goals, hypocracies, and internecine betrayals, might be dry reading for the virgin Orwell lover of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty Four.
Orwell - always political, but usually incredibly subtle in his opinions - has taken his silk gloves off here. This can be heavy going at times, but imagine how tough fighting an actual war was! Casual Orwell fans please persevere. A book you certainly wont forget about a war that just about has been.
on 22 January 2003
I first read Homage to Catalonia in the final year of my degree course as required reading for a course on the Spanish Civil War. Orwell's account is well written, descriptive and remarkably fair handed. It also scores over most other accounts as it is written entirely from his own experiences and is a useful counter to academic studies. For a newcomer to the topic the acronyms he bandies around are bound to be confusing, not even an entire chapter on background quite gets around this problem. However this follows from the confusing nature of the subject matter itself rather than Orwell's handling of it.
Orwell had the fortune, or misfortune, to be in Barcelona during the May Days when the Stalinists in the Republican Government turned against their own. It is Orwell's experiences here that prevent this from being merely a routine exercise in decrying the horrors of war. His scathing account of the Stalinist Terror in Spain was the reason this book was long ignored by the European Leftist intelligentsia, as yet unprepared to come to terms with the moral failings of the Soviet Union and prey to Soviet propaganda. So successful was Soviet propaganda in this respect in the west that the history of the Spanish Revolution remained largely unwritten until the 1970s. Orwell was one of the very few to buck this trend (see also Borkenau, "The Spanish Cockpit") and was vilified as a result.
Homage to Catalonia is a homage to the anarchist revolution, "the first time I had seen a town where the working class where in the saddle" and a requiem for its inevitable darkening and ultimate overthrow. For those who see the war in terms of communism/liberalism versus fascism he provides a much needed balance. Infact there is very little about fascism in this account as it did not impinge directly on Orwell's experience at all.
There is also much that is either humorous or strange in this book as befits an account of a time when communists were ruling in the name of the middle classes. In order to evade the secret police Orwell must sleep rough like a beggar but spend his days in restaurants and cafes like a respectable bourgeois gentleman. There is also a marvellous scene where the dreaded secret police ransack his house but are far too gentlemanly to kick his wife out of bed so leave it untouched. Which leads me to my major question with the book. What on earth did Mrs Orwell make of it all? She was clearly a loyal women following her husband at every turn but we never even find out her name. Some more personal comment on her role might have been nice but I guess Orwell isn't really writing that sort of a book.
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.
on 19 March 2015
In its time a very controversial book for the European left, especially the Russian controlled communist parties and the beginning of the disillusionment of a great writer with the ideas and consequences of totalitarian power (Stalinist) and the party that controlled that centralisation.
Here we see the genesis of 1984, and his final unmasking of the crimes committed in the name of a new faith, a new religion as ferocious and intransigent as the worst religions.
The language is clear and direct and feels contemporary. So much so I could not stop thinking of the Syrian similarities, the young men thinking they will change everything with a single vision of what is correct, the naivete that wars can be just or controlled, that ideals will defeat established powers, that there is honour in the business of killing, the fragmentation of the belief into competing militias, the use of children to fight demagogues wars .
Orwell is blinded with his vision of a better world but is an exceptional reporter and describes his experience in Spain's civil war ( 1936 to 1939) with stark uncensored realism that captures more than just the image he wants to present but a reality that can be studied from different angles, not just the one given by the writer. He also warns that his reporting might be tainted by his ideals or beliefs a first in my experience with writers.
The use of acronyms is baffling because they are given as if everyone knew their meaning but Orwell explains in his appendices the meaning and the animosities of all these factions of the left.
This is a very personal book, of one man’s limited experience (from December 1936 until June 1937) in what was a long bloody war. It explains his reasons and his view of why the war started in a very of the period and party line explanation. For a broader historical point of view I would look else where.
If you like Orwell this is a must read.
What strikes me about Orwell and his writing is always the humanity of the man, and the honesty to test himself and his beliefs. He knew, and was aware of the prejudices which class, sex, and culture impose (on all of us). He was also someone who could examine his beliefs and was not afraid to admit he was wrong
Nowhere does this show itself so clearly as in two of his great autobiographical, journalistic writings, Down and Out In Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. This book recounts Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Like many on the left Orwell went to Spain to fight Fascism. Which in Spain took a different form from Germany and Italy. The democratically elected government in Spain was left leaning. An alliance of various right wing groupings (supported by the arms from Germany and Italy) attempted to overthrow that government. Although there were several right wing groups with their own agenda, they were more united against the left than the multiplicity of left wing groupings were between themselves. Primarily, though Russia supported the left, what the Communist Party was supporting was State Capitalism. Some of the other leftist groups, notably the ‘Trotskyist’ Marxist P.O.U.M (the militia Orwell fought alongside when he first went to Spain) and the Anarchists, were fighting for a bottom-up workers’ revolution.
Initially trying to get papers to go to Spain to fight for the Republic, Orwell did approach Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. (Those Britons intending to fight for the Republic needed supporting documents from a British left organisation). Pollitt however did not consider Orwell ‘sound’. This meant Orwell got his papers from the ILP, the Independent Labour Party. Practically, this meant that he was assigned to a militia which was predominantly P.O.U.M . Had the CP given him papers, he would have entered the war with P.S.U.C , the ‘official’ Communist Party (Stalinist) line. And his experience would have been a vastly different one. An ‘official’ CP line was put out, and widely reported in the Press, that the P.O.U.M were fifth columnists, and were in fact a front for the Fascists. P.O.U.M and the more left wing trades union groupings (F.A.I; C.N.T – Anarchists) were of course nothing of the sort, but were interested in winning a revolution, as well as a war.
Except for the small revolutionary groups which exist in all countries, the whole world was determined upon preventing revolution in Spain. In particular the Communist Party, with Soviet Russia behind it, had thrown its whole weight against the revolution. It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers' control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why 'liberal' capitalist opinion took the same line.
The experience of the P.O.U.M. militia, and later, in Barcelona, were for Orwell a transforming experience. The contrast between a top down imposed line, and a bottom up without-hierarchy, though at times frustratingly inefficient, seemed to connect with Orwell’s own desire to seek the truthful, human encounter, rather than the party line.
To be perfectly honest, the complexities of that war, some 80 years ago, still seem difficult to understand, and it is very clear (as Orwell suggests) that information and misinformation was deliberately put out on all sides. Ancient ideological enmities between particular left groupings do seem to get stuck in fighting each other.
Where I like and trust Orwell is that he wrote this book from his direct experience. A small corner of that war, and from within an organisation which was fairly quickly made illegal. Orwell’s relationship is always with the people he is alongside, not with official lines.
This is at times a remarkably confusing account of warfare. That is not to criticise Orwell - because that is the nature of war, from within the battlezones, minute by minute. Add to that the fact that the Spanish Civil War, and interpretations of what was happening still leads to shouting between different factions and believers on the left, and between different scholarly accounts and interpretations.
Orwell was fighting on a front line, near Huesca, where very little was happening as the lines were quite far apart. Paradoxically, it was when he was in Barcelona for a few days leave, looking forward to getting away from the cold and the rats and the lice, that everything kicked off, and the workers, united, will never be defeated broke down because the various Republican factions pressing differences opened out into naked conflict
“I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan”
Orwell also reminds us that we are ALL partisan and have agendas. Perhaps that is something which is refreshing about him – he describes what he sees, he also applies his investigative, journalistic look to the stories that were told by others with more obvious agendas and party lines to promote.
“I went back to my post on the roof with a feeling of concentrated disgust and fury. When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like a historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting, I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away. What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but simply the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable rood, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse – for none of us had had a proper meal since Monday”
In a way, it is Orwell’s ‘inability to make the correct analysis’ which seems a deal more honest than black and white analyses
The structure of the book intersperses Orwell’s own experiences on the ground, with his particular explanation and analysis of causes and events.
The elderly version on my shelves (I have been re-reading this) also comes with a later essay, published in 1953, some fifteen plus years later than the events he was describing, where he looks back with the hindsight of history, and sees more of the patterns.
Though best remembered for his novels ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ most of Orwell’s early work was documentary, rooted in his life and experiences. These works cannot necessarily be taken at face value, however, as Orwell often flavored his accounts with fictionalized exaggerations in order to convey the essential truths that he encountered. ‘Homage to Catalonia,’ Orwell’s account of his experiences fighting with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is the most accurate of these works. Though many will read it seeking signs of his later work, it deserves to be appreciated in its own right for its engrossing depiction of Orwell’s time in combat and for his insights into the Republican political scene.
This book, part of the ‘Complete Works of George Orwell’ series edited by Peter Davison, offers more than Orwell’s narrative, though. Davison has reconstructed the book based on Orwell’s notes and provided a brief recounting of its publication history, as well as notes regarding variations in earlier texts. The result is to provide a window not just into Orwell’s time in Spain but into how he wrote about it as well, making this the definitive edition for students of this great twentieth century writer.
on 4 April 2016
I first read this in an Orwell-fest of my own in the eighties. I returned to it as I was planning a visit to Catalonia. Orwell writes so well, and while his judgements have not always proved sound in the light of developments (the Spanish civil war had not run its course when the book appeared), his first-hand account of the fighting and factions is still riveting. His matter-of-fact account of his wounding is memorable.