George Orwell's HOMAGE TO CATALONIA
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
In 1936 George Orwell enlisted as a soldier to fight the Fascists in Spain during what we now call the “Spanish Civil War.” This first-person book documents his experiences as a front line soldier and the things he saw in Barcelona as the politics of the war became clear to him.
Politically, Orwell had been a “Socialist.” Socialism had not come automatically to him. He had started life in English public schools and with a family life solidly rooted in the internally rotten imperialism of late 19th Century England.
What he saw about imperialism’s evils during his initial employment as a policeman in Burma after he left college profoundly altered his worldview. This plus his literary bent and his purposeful wanderings with the down-and-out in England and France led him to embrace Socialism, not an uncommon thing for young Europeans in those days.
What he saw in Spain was a rude awakening. He witnessed firsthand the lies and deceit of both sides. In particular, he shows how Communists —- supposedly the “natural enemies” of Fascism —- twisted the truth and undermined the war efforts of the Socialist factions on whose side Orwell was fighting.
Such themes would emerge later in his famous novels, but in this book we see directly how Orwell uses his clear, lucid thinking and writing style to pursue the truth. He saw in Barcelona, for example, what it was like to be in the middle of anarchistic street fighting in a busy metropolis where leaderless groups alternate bullets with scrounging for bread and tobacco.
He also recounts in honest detail what it was like to be on the “front line” in the mountains near Barcelona in a war situation that was more akin to the trench warfare of World War Ithan the mechanized war that would soon engulf the world.
Orwell also does his best in this book to explain the confusing politics of the Spanish Civil War. He grounds his writing not in political theorizing but in what he himself sees and hears. His willingness to question his own beliefs would serve him and his readers well in the coming years.
I came to this book having already read just about everything else Orwell had written, including his published letters and journalism. Reading this book is essential to understanding Orwell since his experiences in the Spanish Civil War had such a profound effect on him. He saw with his own eyes how politicians in remote locations can cause death and destruction in the name of political ideals, ideals which Orwell points out are sometimes little more than an unapologetic quest for power in the name of high ideals.
This theme of Orwell’s more than anything makes this book about long ago events still relevant to us today. Today we may have instant communications which, in theory, make lying and deceit less of a problem. The flip side is that lies and deceit are instantly communicated as well.
As a personal note, I read this book a week after returning from a vacation in Spain. During that time I visited Barcelona and saw firsthand some of the places that Orwell mentions, including the Plaça Catalunya and La Rambla. It is difficult to think of such a beautiful city experiencing the horrors of war.
Review copyright (c) 2005 by Dennis D. McDonald