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Care to learn a thing or two about the Spanish Civil War?
Then George Orwell’s personal account of it is nothing short of a must!
We present to you the summary of his unforgettable Homage to Catalonia.
Who Should Read “Homage to Catalonia”? And Why?
Homage to Catalonia is not one of the most moving and honest books written about a Civil War in the history of mankind, but also one of the most moving and honest books written about civil wars—and war—in general.
You’ll not only learn a lot by reading it—you may also completely change the way you think about some war-related things.
Our only suggestion: forget everything you know about communism and Orwell before you start reading it.
About George Orwell
George Orwell was an Indian-born English novelist and essayist.
Widely considered one of the greatest authors of the 20th century—ranked second on Times’ 2008 list of “50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945,” only behind Philip Larkin—he is primarily known for his two anti-totalitarian novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Always the fighter for freedom, he developed such a distinctive style and vision that he became an adjective soon after his death: everybody knows what “Orwellian” means nowadays.
“Homage to Catalonia PDF Summary”
The Spanish Civil War
As far as civil wars go, the Spanish Civil War has to be one of the most (in)famous ones.
Which is a strange thing when you think about it!
Because no matter how significant civil wars are in local terms (and they are extremely), globally, they mean little to nothing.
After all, why should a German boy living in the 21st century even know who Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant were?
Yes, both of them contributed (positively or negatively) to the shaping of the Soul of America, but neither was a Hitler or a Stalin.
However, the Spanish Civil War was a bit different. It happened in the last three years before the Second World War, and it managed to animate the whole of Europe.
Divided as they were, the European nations saw the conflict between the left-wing, equality-leaning Spanish Republicans and the largely aristocratic, conservative and Catholic right-wing Nationalists as a sort of a symbolic war between democracy and fascism.
But even the real stakes were unusually high.
You see, not many countries wanted Franco and the rightists to win—fearing this would result in another ally of Nazi Germany and Italy—but even fewer wanted him to lose because that would have meant a communist Spain.
In the words of George Orwell:
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.
George Orwell Arrives in Spain
Now, what was George Orwell doing in Spain?
Well, he was just one of the many international volunteers who decided to leave their peaceful countries and take participation in the Spanish Civil War!
Most of them—let’s say, 90%—came to fight on the side of the Republicans, believing that they are fighting for a better future, not only for Spain but also for humanity in general.
It was the last month of 1936 when Orwell left England and joined the Republicans as a volunteer.
Upon arriving in Barcelona, Orwell is amazed to see that the revolution (which everybody thought was waning by the end of the year) was still in full swing.
“When one came straight from England,” Orwell writes, “the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.”
And then he goes on: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”
And that was not all: every shop and café had been collectivized, everybody was calling everybody “comrade,” and even tipping was prohibited by law.
To Orwell, it seemed that “that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side.”
And even though he didn’t like some of the things he had seen, he still almost immediately recognized that this was “a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Orwell Joins the POUM
And fight he did: soon after arriving in Barcelona, Orwell decided to join the POUM militia.
Now, POUM stands for Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista which, translated into English, is Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. Formed just a year or so before Orwell’s arrival in Spain, the POUM was an anti-Stalinist party of former Trotskyists and was organized on the principle of social equality.
Meaning: soldiers are allowed to disagree with their superiors, which act as their superiors merely because of formalities and convention, i.e., ranks.
However, in the eyes of Orwell, there’s something about this that doesn’t bode well. After all, just like orchestras need a conductor, armies need a sergeant—otherwise, they won’t be synchronized enough to work as a team.
Even so, there’s something about POUM that works.
It seems that POUM’s soldiers are disciplined in a rather strange anarchistic, revolutionary type of way. Simply put, they know which orders to obey because they are conscious enough to understand why they are fighting in the first place.
Armies are efficient because mindless; even though less efficient, POUM’s militia seems to serve as a great model of how a classless society can function in practice.
115 Days on the Front
Orwell spends about four months on the front; and he describes them at length in the first two-thirds of the book.
However—somewhat surprising since it is a war we’re talking about—these may be the least interesting pages in the book.
Because, more or less, nothing ever happens.
Because of the hilly terrains and the high stakes—regardless of whether Orwell is at Monte Oscuro or on the eastern side of Huesca—it is stationary warfare all along.
It is so unchallenging and quiet that more soldiers seem to die as a cause of a mistake (the price of poorly armed and badly trained soldiers) than as the result of the enemy attacking.
However, stationary warfare brings problems as well, and most of the time Orwell tries to deal with them, be they lice, or the lack of firewood and food.
However, he is not alone in that, and the sense of camaraderie is what makes this experience worthwhile even in the “mingled boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare”:
There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.
After being given leave, sometime around three o’clock in the afternoon of 26th April 1937, George Orwell reaches Barcelona.
“And after that,” he writes ominously, “the trouble began.”
Barcelona Is Changed
“A deep change had come over the town,” notes Orwell. “There were two facts that were the keynote of all else. One was that the people—the civil population—had lost much of their interest in the war; the other was that the normal division of society into rich and poor, upper class and lower class, was reasserting itself.”
In other words, things seem to have gone back to normal—as dreadful as normal usually is. For some reason, during the four months Orwell spent risking his life for some future egalitarian socialist society, that society simply vanished into thin air.
And it’s even worse than that!
You see, in the meantime—as it usually happens—some leftists got the feeling that they are more democratic than some other leftists, and so started undemocratically destroying the latter.
And the reason why they could do that in the first place was very simple: they had the backing of someone much powerful.
If you remember, above we mentioned that POUM was a Trotskyite organization; and it was closely aligned to CNT, an anarchist union. However, the Second Spanish Republic was ruled by communists, who were, in turn, backed by Stalin.
And Stalin wasn’t a big fan of Trotsky.
Need we say more?
Well, let’s: in the middle of a war between the leftwing sides and the Fascists, during the first few days of May 1937, fights erupt between different fractions of the former!
“It was,” informs us Orwell, “the antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it—ultimately, between Anarchists and Communists.”
Shot at the Front
Ironically, only after he comes back from the front, Orwell gets into some real fighting!
And things go from bad to worse after the communist-controlled newspapers label POUM a Fascist organization.
Yes, it is as absurd as it sounds: the leftwing armies are creating enemies within their own lines even though they have a powerful adversary to fight against!
Orwell suddenly realizes that no matter who wins here “the tendency of the post-war Government is bound to be Fascistic.”
Already somewhat disillusioned, Orwell returns to the front, where he is amazed to realize that the soldiers are blissfully unaware of what is happening back in Barcelona.
One day, “in the very middle of saying something,” Orwell is shot in the throat. And this is how he felt at the moment:
As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was done for. I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it. The blood was dribbling out of the comer of my mouth. ‘The artery’s gone,’ I thought. I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry. There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed. And that too was interesting—I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.
A Traitor by Political Accident
Orwell is transferred between hospitals until finally declared medically unfit. However, so as to leave he needs to get his papers stamped at the POUM militia headquarters.
Fortunately, before doing that, he goes to the Hotel Continental to meet his wife.
“Get out of here at once,” she says to him.
At this point, Orwell is as surprised as you are.
“The POUM’S been suppressed,” Eileen says. “They’ve seized all the buildings. Practically everyone’s in prison. And they say they’re shooting people already.”
How the hell, in the time of war, you arrest and kill people fighting on your side, wonders Orwell!
However, he doesn’t have that much time to wonder for he may end up just like one of his great and admired friends.
After several days of hiding, one morning in June 1937, Orwell and Eileen finally manage to escape to France, without any incident.
Back in England, Orwell is surprised by how isolated his native country is from what’s happening around the world. In the final sentence, he gloomily notes that he fears that his countrymen shall never wake from “the deep, deep sleep of England”—that is not until they are “are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
Key Lessons from “Homage to Catalonia”
1. “All Soldiers Are Lousy”
2. The Spanish Civil War Was Never About Democracy
3. What You’re Left with in the End
“All Soldiers Are Lousy”
History books, movies and artists often paint war heroes as sort of demigods; their portraits inspire fear and awe.
Don’t believe them one bit, says Orwell.
At least not when it is warm enough.
Because that’s when the lice came.
“The men that fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae,” writes Orwell, “every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.”
“I think pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice,” he notes a little before, after comparing the louse to a tiny lobster living in your trousers.
In our humble pacifist opinion, this seems like a great idea!
The Spanish Civil War Was Never About Democracy
Perhaps the most important revelation of Orwell concerning the Spanish Civil War is one which, unfortunately, accompanies most civil wars.
Namely, that the Spanish Civil War wasn’t an exalted war between democracy and fascism, but an appalling conflict between parties hungry for political power.
The former was merely a mask, the propaganda poster used to attract volunteers such as George Orwell.
What You’re Left with in the End
“Curiously enough,” writes Orwell in the last chapter of Homage to Catalonia, the result of his experience wasn’t disillusionment and cynicism. On the contrary: “the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
We only wish we could say the same, George.
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“Homage to Catalonia Quotes”
Our Critical Review
According to Jordan Peterson, Homage to Catalonia is a book “of the first order of importance.” In addition, Noam Chomsky has noted that it is not only “a moving eyewitness account,” but also “a brilliant book.”
Now, when the same book is praised by such fundamentally divergent thinkers such as Peterson and Chomsky, it has to be good, right?
Well, it’s not.