Homage to Catalonia (1938) by George Orwell: Vivid, partisan portrait of war

An eyewitness account of the cold, fear and squalor of the trenches is the first of Brian Maye’s year-long series of Old Favourites

George Orwell. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

George Orwell. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

 

I first read Homage to Catalonia when I went to Spain to teach English in 1977. It was just two years after Franco’s death. The country was in its transition phase between dictatorship and democracy, with residual signs of the former still existing.

The book’s opening brilliantly captures the idealism that pertained on the left in the early stages of the Spanish civil war in Barcelona, where Orwell had arrived in December 1936 to fight for the Spanish republic against the fascist rebellion. He served in the militia of the POUM, a mainly Trotskyist political party. He and his wife were lucky to escape the communist purges in Barcelona in June 1937 and while those purges didn’t destroy his faith in socialism, they made him a lifelong anti-Stalinist.

He was shot through the throat and nearly killed in May 1937. Catalans told him a person who is shot through the neck and survives is the luckiest person alive, but he himself thought “it would be even luckier not to be hit at all”. It wasn’t the wound but the attempt by the communist secret police to wipe out all non-communist groups that caused him to flee to England.

He found the first talk of treachery and divided aims deeply disturbing. “It set up in my mind the first vague doubts about this war in which, hitherto, the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple.” Animal Farm (1945), described as “his scintillating satire on Stalinism”, was part of Orwell’s response to what he considered the betrayal of the Spanish republic.

Part of Homage’s value is that it’s an eyewitness account. It vividly recounts what it was like to be a militiaman at the front and evokes the cold, the fear and the squalor (excrement, lice, rats) of the trenches.

Orwell denounced Stalin’s Russia but it was the only great power willing to aid the Spanish republic when the French, British and Americans shamefully stood aside, while Hitler and Mussolini gave Franco copious help. So, although a first-hand and brilliantly written account, it is only a partial and partisan insight into the war but one that’s remained unforgettable to the idealistic 23-year-old I then was.

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