George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’

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Orwell’s War Against Franco and Sympathy For a Better Society

Orwell arrived in Barcelona in 1936 and joined the war against Franco with an ensemble of individuals compelled by the rise of fascism in Europe.

English novelist and poet Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), who was better know by his pen name George Orwell, was renowned for his awareness for social injustice, an intense, revolutionary opposition to totalitarianism. This is echoed in his profound personal account of his experience and observations of the Spanish Civil War in ‘Homage to Catalonia’, which was first published in 1938.

The War Against Franco

The war against General Franco’s military uprising was fought not only by Spaniards, but also by an international ensemble of individuals compelled by the rise of fascism in Europe and emboldened by the promise that, in this instance at least, it could be overcome.

Among them was George Orwell, one of the great writers of the 20th Century. His service is commemorated in Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico district, by Plaza George Orwell, a colorful square that teems with life. Its dedication is a reminder that hateful doctrines such as fascism, while somehow inevitable, will never fail to inspire a righteous opposition.

George Orwell

Orwell’s Experience of the Spanish Civil War

‘Homage to Catalonia’ is a record of Orwell’s experiences, through a first-person account of the war that gave a vivid impression of Barcelona at the time. When he first arrived in Barcelona, in late December 1936, a “definite revolutionary outbreak” had laid to waste to any visible remnants of the feudalism that Franco sought to re-impose. It was an exciting environment that appealed to Orwell’s then idealistic socialism: “It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.”

He strongly sympathized with the broadly felt belief that a changed society could exist, recounting that “above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of freedom and equality.” Orwell soon signed up, considering this “a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Preparatory training was held on Montjuïc Hill, overlooking Plaza España. During this period, Orwell was moved to comment effusively on the locals he encountered: “I defy anyone to be thrown as I was among the Catalan working class and not be struck by their essential decency; above all their straightforwardness and generosity.”

Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War

When Orwell returned from the front line Barcelona was a very different city. The anarchists were being actively undermined by the return of the Civil Guard, who had sufficiently emboldened the bourgeoisie to come out of hiding. Beyond the return of social inequality, the distantly united front against fascism had been truly torn asunder by internecine conflict between its various political factions. Barcelona was now engulfed by a war within a war. Locations such as Las Ramblas and Plaza Catalunya were the site of military occupations and gunfights.

Orwell’s experience of the war was ultimately defined by this final exercise in futile, wasteful foolishness. His actual deployment saw him deserted on the Aragon front, which he and his comrades maintained to little or no avail, while other troops fell in fierce battle all over Spain. He was himself shot in the throat, while addressing his men from a foolishly elevated position. This viciously unfortunate event compounded his feeling that the war was nothing but “a bloody pantomime.”

Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell

However, while the heroic narrative of ‘Homage to Catalonia’ never comes close to fulfilment in the broader sense, it is the seeming accumulation that remains so precious; the wonder that so many risked everything for a noble cause, the warmth and brotherhood that grew amid such adversity and, finally, the unflinching account that remains to enrich our ideas of history.

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