Homage to Catalonia is political journalist and novelist George Orwell's personal account of his experiences and observations in the Spanish Civil War, written in the first person. The first edition was published in 1938.
Orwell served as both a private and a corporal in Catalonia
from December 1936 until June 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The political party whose militia he served with, (the POUM
, an anti-Stalinist communist party), was declared an illegal organisation and Orwell was subsequently forced to flee or face imprisonment.
By his own admission, Orwell joined the POUM rather than the Communist-run International Brigades by chance—but his experiences, in particular his and his wife's narrow escape from the Communist purges in Barcelona in June 1937, greatly increased his sympathy for POUM and made him a life-long anti-Stalinist.
During his military service, Orwell was shot through the neck and nearly killed. He wrote in Homage to Catalonia that people frequently told him he was lucky to survive, but that he personally thought "it would be even luckier not to be hit at all."
George Orwell, and his wife Eileen (Eileen O'Shaughnessy), who accompanied him to Spain, returned to England. After nine months of animal husbandry and writing up Homage to Catalonia at their cottage at Wallington, Hertfordshire, Orwell's health declined and he had to spend several months at a sanatorium in Kent.
Summary of chapters
It should be noted that the following summary is based on a later edition of the book which contains some amendments that Orwell requested: two chapters (formerly chapters five and eleven) describing the politics of the time were moved to appendices. Orwell felt that these chapters should be moved so that readers could ignore them if they wished; the chapters, which became appendices, were journalistic accounts of the political situation in Spain, and Orwell felt these were out of place in the midst of the narrative.
The book begins with Orwell describing the camaraderie of the atmosphere in revolutionary Spain during 1937. He asserts that Barcelona
appeared to have been "a town where the working class were in the saddle": a large number of businesses had been collectivised
, "the Anarchists
" (referring to the Spanish CNT
) were "in control", tipping
was prohibited by workers themselves, and servile forms of speech, such as "Señor
" or "Don
", were abandoned. He goes on to describe events at the Lenin Barracks
, where militiamen were given "what was comically called 'instruction'" in preparation for fighting at the front.
Most of the remainder of this chapter is devoted to describing the faults of the POUM workers' militia, as he saw them, half-complaining about the sometimes frustrating tendency of Spaniards to put things off until "mañana" (tomorrow), noting his struggles with Spanish (aggravated by the local use of Catalan) and praising the friendliness and generosity of the majority of Spaniards he met. Orwell leads us on to the next chapter by describing the "conquering-hero stuff"—parades through the streets and cheering crowds—that the militiamen experienced at the time he was sent to the Aragón front.
Orwell arrives in Alcubierre
(in January 1937) to witness the squalid conditions, aggravated by the village's proximity to the civil war front. He then mentions the arrival of various "Fascist
deserters" and the poor weaponry that the militiamen in that area of the front received. Rifles weren't handed out until their third day in the village. The chapter ends on his centuria
's arrival at trenches near Saragossa
and the first time a bullet nearly hit him. He adds, to his own dismay, that he ducked.
The narration begins as a description of the—perhaps unique—mundaneness of trench warfare
, the sneaking about in the mist and on night patrols. Here he praises the Spanish militias
: for their relative social equality
, for their holding of the front while the army was trained in the rear, and for the "democratic
'revolutionary' type of discipline
" which he says is "more reliable than might be expected." This democratic and egalitarian approach remained intact on the front, he said, even while it was being almost systematically destroyed behind the lines by the Communist
-controlled government, police and press during that year
. Throughout the chapter, Orwell describes the various shortages and problems at the front—firewood, tobacco, and adequate munitions—as well as the danger of accidents inherent in a badly trained and poorly armed group of soldiers.
After some three weeks at the front, Orwell and the other English militiaman in his unit, Williams, join a contingent of fellow Englishmen sent out by the Independent Labour Party
to a position at Monte Oscuro, closer to Saragossa. At this position, he witnesses the sometimes propagandistic
shouting between the Fascist
trenches and hears of the fall of Málaga. In February, he is sent with the other POUM militiamen 50 miles to Huesca
; he mentions the running joke phrase "Tomorrow we'll have a coffee in Huesca," attributed to the general commanding the Government troops who made one of many failed assaults on the town.
Orwell complains, in chapter five, that on the eastern side of Huesca, where he was stationed, nothing ever seemed to happen—except the onslaught of spring, and, with it, lice
. He was in a ("so-called") hospital at Monflorite
for ten days at the end of March 1937 with "a poisoned hand." He describes rats
that "really were as big as cats, or nearly" (in his famous Nineteen Eighty-Four
, Orwell's character Winston Smith
has a phobia of rats that Orwell himself shared to some degree). He makes a reference here to the lack of orthodox "religious feeling," telling us that the Roman Catholic Church
was to the Spanish "a racket, pure and simple." He muses that Christianity may have, to some extent, been replaced by Anarchism
. The latter portion of the chapter briefly details various operations in which Orwell took part: silently advancing the Loyalist frontline by night, for example.
One of these operations, which in chapter five had been postponed, was a "holding attack" on Huesca, designed to draw the Fascist troops away from an Anarchist attack on "the Jaca
road." It is described herein. Orwell notes the offensive of that night where his group of fifteen captured a Fascist position, but then retreated to their lines with captured rifles and ammunition. The diversion was successful in drawing troops from the Anarchist attack.
This chapter reads like an interlude. Orwell shares his memories of the 115 days he spent on the war front, including a recognition that his political ideas were changing slowly. By the time he left Spain, he became a "convinced democratic Socialist."
Herein Orwell details noteworthy changes in the social and political atmosphere when he returns to Barcelona after more than three months at the front. He describes a lack of revolutionary atmosphere and the class division that he had thought would not reappear, i.e., with visible division between rich and poor and the return of servile language. Orwell had been determined to leave the POUM, and confesses here that he "would have liked to join the Anarchists," but instead sought a recommendation to join the Communist International Column
, so that he could go to the Madrid
front. The latter half of this chapter is devoted to describing the conflict between the Anarchist CNT and the Socialist UGT
and the resulting cancellation of the May Day
demonstration and the build-up to the street fighting of the Barcelona May Days
Orwell relates his involvement in the Barcelona street fighting that began on 3rd of May
when Government Assault Guards tried to take the telephone exchange from the CNT workers who controlled it. For his part, Orwell acted as part of the POUM, guarding a POUM-controlled building. Although he realises that he is fighting on the side of the working class, Orwell describes his dismay at coming back to Barcelona on leave from the front only to get mixed up in street fighting. In his second appendix to the book, Orwell discusses the political issues at stake in the May 1937 Barcelona fighting, as he saw them at the time and later on, looking back.
Here he begins with musings on how the Spanish Civil War
might turn out. Orwell predicts that the "tendency of the post-war Government... is bound to be Fascistic." He returns to the front, where he is shot through the throat by a sniper, an injury that takes him out of the war. After spending some time in a hospital in Lleida
, he was moved to Tarragona
where his wound was finally examined more than a week after he'd left the front.
Orwell tells us of his various movements between hospitals in Siétamo, Barbastro, and Monzón
while getting his discharge papers stamped, after being declared medically unfit. He returns to Barcelona only to find that the POUM had been "suppressed": it had been declared illegal the very day
he had left to obtain discharge papers and POUM members were being arrested without charge. He sleeps that night in the ruins of a church; he cannot go back to his hotel because of the danger of arrest.
This chapter explores the political persecution he encountered with regard to his and his wife's visit to Georges Kopp
, unit commander of the ILP Contingent
while Kopp was incarcerated in a Spanish makeshift jail. Having done all he could to free Kopp, ineffectively and at great personal risk, Orwell decides to leave Spain. Crossing the Pyrenees frontier, "thanks to the inefficiency of the police," he and his wife arrived in France "without incident."
The broader political context in Spain and the revolutionary situation in Barcelona at the time is discussed. The political differences among the PSUC
(the Catalan Communists), the anarchists, and the POUM, are considered.
An attempt to dispel some of the myths in the foreign press at the time (mostly the pro-Communist press) about the street fighting that took place in Catalonia
in early May 1937. This was between anarchists and POUM members, against Communist/government forces which sparked off when local police forces occupied the telephone exchange, which had until then been under the control of CNT workers.