Homage to Catalonia

Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, written in a frenzy a few months after he left the front lines to recover from being shot in the throat. If you like detailed books about war, you may enjoy this, but I didn’t find it as interesting as his other books, tops in my mind being 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London. Blair/Orwell volunteers to fight for the revolutionaries against the fascists and finds things chaotic and understaffed, to say the least. Not enough guns or ammunition, pseudo-training of the young boys by marching them around the square double-time but no real training of how to shoot a weapon or throw a bomb. The primary concern of folks at the front was firewood, food, cigarettes, candles, and the enemy, in that order. His pal Kopp says, “This is not a war, it is a comic opera with an occasional death,” and Orwell grants that his life was probably saved many times over by the “Spanish standard of marksmanship,” i.e. to miss wildly. The real weapon on the front was the megaphone, as each side would taunt the other, the revolutionaries mentioning (falsely) the delicious buttered toast they were eating and for the other side to hurry up and defect already to get their hands on some.

Beyond his detailed account of the boredom and cold on the front, Orwell heroically tries to explain all the various factions that were theoretically on the same side fighting against Franco, but that were all infighting as well. The POUM (the division Orwell was with) believed that the only alternative to fascism was worker control. The PSUC (which eventually won control) was pushed by the Stalinist line from the USSR to set up a parliamentary democracy first and revolution later (or hopefully never, but they lured recruits by dangling the revolution mañana). He says that the best strategic opportunity of the war (liberating Morocco) was thrown away “in the vain hope of placating French and British capitalism.” Orwell lucked out to find himself embedded with the most revolutionary part of the Spanish defenders, people truly treating each other equally with no rank. This group was soon overthrown (and hundreds imprisoned) when the Right-wing Communists made their move; yes, right-wing. It was a weird amalgamation of groups that banded together to fight fascism.

While on leave from the front, Orwell finds himself dragged into the fighting that breaks out in the streets of Barcelona. His wife (Eileen Blair) is living in Barcelona and attempting to help out as a nurse after her main job of delivering cigars and other English necessities was accomplished. I yearn for an account of what she experienced during those frantic days of street fighting, which was then quelled when 6,000 police got shipped in from Valencia. “The Civil Guards and the Carabineros, who were not intended for the front at all, were better armed and far better clad than ourselves. I suspect it is the same in all wars—always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line.”

Orwell has some harsh words for the journalists writing about the war from the safety of their homes hundreds or thousands of miles away from the front. “It’s the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda tours. 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-hold in him.”

This is viewed by some as the best account of the Spanish Civil War, although Orwell credits The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau as the “ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war.”