Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151
The Spanish Civil War, which lasted from July, 1936, to March, 1939, was in some ways an international civil war as well: Partisans and opponents of Fascism from all over the world took part in it. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sent arms to aid the right-wing rebels led by Francisco Franco. Joseph Stalin sent arms and advisers to the Spanish Republican government and ordered the Communist International to organize the International Brigades in defense of that republic. Although the governments of France, Great Britain, and the United States maintained strict neutrality, most intellectuals in Great Britain and the United States supported the side that ultimately lost, that of the Spanish Republic; some even went to Spain and fought for the Republic. Among them was a thirty-three-year-old British novelist and journalist named Eric Arthur Blair, who used the pen name George Orwell.
Orwell arrived in Barcelona, the capital of the northeastern Spanish province of Catalonia, in December, 1936; his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair, followed him a few months later. Because the bulk of the Spanish officer corps had gone over to the rebels in July of that year, the defense of the Republic had rested initially in the hands of the volunteer militias organized by trade unions and left-wing political parties. Since Orwell’s letters of introduction were from the Independent Labour Party of England (ILP), he decided to join the militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM), a small left-wing Spanish party affiliated with the ILP, rather than enlisting in the Communist-run International Brigades. As a soldier in the POUM militia, Orwell served on the Aragonese front in northeastern Spain, fighting alongside Spaniards and foreign volunteers.
During the first five months of 1937, there was growing friction behind the Republican lines, between the Spanish Communists on the one hand and the Anarchists and the POUM on the other. One bone of contention was the Communists’ demand, supported by influential liberal and Socialist politicians, that the militias be replaced by a regular army. In May, 1937, while Orwell was on leave in Barcelona, bloody clashes took place between police and militiamen in that city; fresh security troops had to be sent there to restore order. The Communists blamed the POUM for the unrest, although Anarchists had been involved in the disturbances as well. In June, a new Republican coalition cabinet, at the urging of the Communists, issued a decree outlawing the POUM. Orwell, who had just been wounded fighting Franco’s soldiers, was forced to flee to England with his wife.
Orwell began writing his account of his experiences in Spain, Homage to Catalonia, in July, 1937, while his memories of his adventures there were still fresh. He had some difficulty finding a publisher for the work. When it was published in England in April, 1938, the Spanish Civil War was still raging.
Of the 1,500 copies of Homage to Catalonia published, only 900 were sold during Orwell’s lifetime. The book’s sharp criticism of the Spanish Communist Party, and implicitly of the Soviet Union, offended British and American liberal intellectuals, many of whom regarded Stalin as a defender of freedom against Fascist aggression. This favorable image of Stalin, tarnished by the German-Soviet Pact of August, 1939, shone briefly once again after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. After the defeat of Germany in 1945, however, liberals in both Great Britain and the United States came to view Stalin’s Soviet Union itself as a threat to freedom and to see Orwell’s criticism of Communist policy in the 1930’s as prophetic rather than merely eccentric. Thus, in 1952, about two years after Orwell’s death, an American publishing house reprinted Homage to Catalonia.
Homage to Catalonia, in its reprinted version, is, at 232 pages, relatively short. Although the book is divided into fourteen chapters, there are no chapter headings, table of contents, or index; there is also a complete absence of any illustrations.
In chapter 1, the author gives an account of his enlistment in the militia in Barcelona; he also re-creates for the reader the social atmosphere of that city in a time of revolutionary fervor. In chapters 2 through 4 and in chapters 6 through 8, Orwell tells about his experiences as a soldier on the Aragon front. In chapters 9 and 10, the author provides an eyewitness account of the disturbances of May, 1937, in Barcelona—one of the few such accounts of these events available. He gives the reader a keen sense of the confusion and uncertainty that prevailed on all sides in that city during those days of street fighting. In chapter 12 Orwell describes his return to the front, and he discusses the nearly fatal neck wound he received there from a sniper. In chapters 13 and 14, the author gives the suspense-filled story of his return to Barcelona, where his wife warned him of the danger of being arrested; of his desperate efforts to elude the police; and of his final success in crossing the border into France, and returning to Great Britain. In these two final chapters, Orwell makes clear just how brutal and arbitrary was the repression visited upon the POUM. Not only Spaniards but also such foreign volunteers as the Belgian Georges Kopp and the Briton Bob Smillie, men whom the author had known well, were thrown into jail; Orwell expresses with great eloquence his anger at their treatment.
To convey his indignation over such occurrences, Orwell sometimes breaks out of the confines of the first-person narrative of his own experiences. In chapters 5 and 11, he does not simply recount what happened to him; instead, he writes as a polemicist. In chapter 5, he argues that the Spanish Communists were trying to prevent a genuine Socialist revolution from ever taking place in the Republic and that they were acting as a counterrevolutionary force purely for the sake of Stalin’s foreign policy. In chapter 11 Orwell provides, for the first time, his own interpretation of the disturbances of May, 1937, in Barcelona. In opposition to the Spanish Communist version of these events, which accused the POUM of deliberately plotting rebellion, Orwell stresses the unplanned and spontaneous nature of the disturbances. They began, he asserts, only when the chief of police ordered the seizure of the telephone exchange; members of the POUM were by no means the only ones fighting the police. In chapters 5 and 11, Orwell defends the POUM against the accusation, leveled against it by the Spanish Communists, that it was a crypto-Fascist organization in the pay of Nazi Germany and Franco. In chapter 11, Orwell also attacks the British Communists and their sympathizers for their unthinking acceptance of the Spanish Communists’ version of events. Orwell turns from war memoirist to polemicist because his book is not intended simply for the armchair soldier who wants to experience war vicariously; it is also aimed at the contemporary British liberal or left-wing intellectual, who Orwell believes, tended to have an oversimplified view of the Civil War as a conflict between good democrats and evil Fascists.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123
Benson, Frederick R. Writers in Arms: The Literary Impact of the Spanish Civil War, 1967.
Carr, Raymond. “Orwell and the Spanish Civil War,” in The World of George Orwell, 1971. Edited by Miriam Gross.
Cunningham, Valentine. “Spanish Front,” in British Writers of the Thirties, 1988.
Hunter, Lynette. “Language and Tradition, Criticism, and Compromise: Homage to Catalonia and Coming Up for Air,” in George Orwell: The Search for a Voice, 1984.
Muste, John M. “Voyage and Exile,” in Say That We Saw Spain Die: Literary Consequences of the Spanish Civil War, 1966.
Reilly, Patrick. “The Transient Paradise,” in George Orwell: The Age’s Adversary, 1986.
Stansky, Peter, and William Abrahams. “An Education in Spain,” in Orwell: The Transformation, 1979.
Zwerdling, Alex. “The Making of a Socialist,” in Orwell and the Left, 1974.
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