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Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the…
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Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War

by George Orwell

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1024198,903 (4.08)None
Member:Jenney
Title:Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War
Authors:George Orwell
Info:Penguin Books Ltd. (1982), Mass Market Paperback
Collections:Your library
Rating:
Tags:Autobiography, History, Politics

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Homage to Catalonia ; and, Looking back on the Spanish war by George Orwell

Recently added byTomPa, private library, butsuri, Ubik3, jerkwasser, ceejaybee, ctipng, GeorgeCulmer, hydromatic, csaavedra
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Thankfully, the edition of "Homage to Catalonia" I read includes the short essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War", which Orwell first published in 1943 and gives a different perspective of the Spanish Civil War than the one he wrote in the book, briefly after his time in Catalonia fighting with the P.O.U.M. Otherwise this book would only give a partisan view of the war -- much like most of what he himself criticized later on in the essay itself.

The book has two main narrative lines: the first being his first-hand experiences first in Barcelona and then serving at the front, then back in Barcelona during the 1937 "May Days", and then during his last period in Catalonia before escaping to France. This is as interesting as any first-hand account of a war and there's very little to criticize, although he could have probably done without the countless generalizations about Spain and Spanish people which, to my taste, were a bit too racist.

The second narrative line, which is mostly in two long chapters intertwined with the rest, has to do with his take on the political context and situation in the Republican side: including a description of all relevant factions on the republican side and how these related to each other, and also a description of the contradicting powers at play and perspectives on how the war was to be fought and the differing priorities and strategies that caused more than just friction in republican lines. From this, it is hard to criticize Orwell considering his place in the war itself, and one can give him credits for repeating once and again that his account is just as partial as any other, but nonetheless one cannot leave him unaccountable for the impact that his book has had in the understanding of the Spanish Civil War -- after all this is probably the most popular and read book on the topic.

Suffices to say, that part of the "Looking Back on the Spanish War" makes amends on what he had written earlier. Admitting that the war was lost not because of the divisions between anarchists and the government, but simply because the fascist side was the strongest and they had the support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Questioning the fact that the U.K. and other countries reminded neutral to the conflict when they could have done something to support the Republicans and prevent a fascist win. Taking a step back on the "theories" on the strategy of the USSR on their position in the conflict to admit that, perhaps, there was a bit too much theorization on the hows and whys on all sides. I suppose that, amid the horror of WWII it is easier to step back and realize that whatever quarrels divided forces on the Republican side, the grand conflict is one of horror and mass murder vs survival.

All in all, an interesting read, recommendable if taken with a grain of salt and not as an authoritative work on the war. But if you do read it make sure to read "Looking Back on the Spanish War", as well as this article in The Guardian. ( )
  csaavedra | Apr 15, 2020 |
A compelling book about the author's experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the main value of Homage to Catalonia is nevertheless as an insight into Orwell's beliefs and motivations. The war was not over when Orwell wrote and published this in 1938, and consequently many of his observations lack the necessary benefit of hindsight to become truly essential as a piece of history. The most readable parts of the book detail Orwell's impressions of the front lines – the trench warfare, the lice and what it was like to shoot and be shot at. His account of being shot in the throat by a Fascist sniper is very evocative; as he says with classic British understatement, "the whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail." (pg. 177). A dry humour is evident throughout, not least when describing the various incompetencies and inefficiencies of the makeshift Spanish militias. My favourite was the grenade design where the lever was held down by a piece of tape (pg. 36), but special mention should go to this glorious passage on pages 185-6, concerning the afore-mentioned bullet wound:

"The wound was a curiosity in a small way and various doctors examined it with much clicking of tongues and 'Que suerte! Que suerte!' One of them told me with an air of authority that the bullet had missed the artery by 'about a millimetre'. I don't know how he knew. No one I met at this time – doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients – failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all."

Orwell is also good at describing the infighting amongst the various political sects on the Republican side and how the revolutionary ideals were thus compromised. Orwell volunteered for the civil war in Spain as a socialist idealist, and saw in the first few months of that war an atmosphere when "'comrade' stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug." (pg. 102). He also saw the corruption of this revolutionary spirit as Stalinist-style communism began to tighten its grip over the Republic. It was this betrayal which was to have a dominant formative impact on Orwell, who retained his belief in democratic socialism but became aware of how it could be undermined so easily and willingly. There is much to be seen in Homage to Catalonia as a forerunner for the allegorical criticism of Stalinism in Animal Farm and the nature of the totalitarian regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The 1943 essay 'Looking Back on the Spanish War', included in my Penguin edition (as in most editions) at the end of Homage to Catalonia, is also instructive here. Not only does it serve as a update on the author's views of the war after it had actually ended (in defeat for the Republicans) and therefore as an essential coda to the main work, but it also shows how the war influenced Orwell's two celebrated novels. The ideas about how, depending on who writes the histories, 'the lie will have become truth' (pg. 235), about how, if the Leader says so, two and two is five (pg. 236), and about how the long-term enemy of totalitarianism is the working class (pg. 238), foreshadowing the 'if there is hope, it lies in the proles' line, would all be expanded on in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But this is not a parlour game for literary critics hoping to trace Orwell's influences. The main quality of Orwell's work is its contemporary relevance. The reason he remains an essential read is that his ideas on dictatorship, totalitarianism, censorship, politics and the corruptibility of human nature are fundamentally sound. Even in Homage to Catalonia, ostensibly an account of the author's participation in a long-forgotten war, we not only have the clear germination of eternal ideas expressed in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four but, we can now see, other disquieting parallels to contemporary events. For example, when reading about how Russia was able to dictate terms to the Republicans because no other major power was willing to provide arms (pg. 53), I couldn't help but think about the ongoing Syrian civil war and how Western inaction has allowed Putin a free hand in the region. There really is nothing new under the sun. This is why Orwell matters; he discourages complacency in the democracies. When we fail to heed these warnings, it is our own damn fault; Orwell himself could scarcely do more. Political repression remains an ever-present threat, but in Orwell it has an evergreen opponent. ( )
  Mike_F | Jun 3, 2016 |
When I was about fourteen or fifteen I did a holiday homework history project on the Spanish Civil War. It made a big impression on me. On the first day back at school I sought out the other boy who had done his project on the same subject. Patrick Drumgoole. Now that’s name I haven’t thought of in a very long time. Full of the injustice of it all I ranted about the way the Spanish government had been left to the slavering Italian and German wolves by the lily livered democratic soon-to-be-allies, only to find he was delighted at the way the dangerous left wing anarcho-commies had been defeated by the Catholic forces of (the) right. It was the first time I had ever really encountered a political debate. If you can call telling Patrick Drumgoole he was a f**king t**t a political debate.



George Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War, as recounted in Homage To Catalonia, seemed to have made a similarly big impression on him, albeit his was a lot more ‘first hand’ than mine in that he was actually there, being shot at whilst I was at home, er, not being shot at. Patrick Drumgoole wasn’t even a particularly big bloke.



His story is of the ‘War is Boring, Cold, Hungry, Dirty and Irritating’ kind, rather than the ‘War Is Hell’ kind. Even when recounting going over the top or actually being shot he doesn’t make it sound actually frightening. In fact the time spent behind the lines, on leave, in Barcelona where political in-fighting between the anarchists and communists led to a civil war within a civil war and a virtual police state sounded a lot more frightening. Which could explain a lot about his later fiction. ( )
  Scriberpunk | Apr 14, 2010 |
This was the first book I read on the Spanish Civil War. I found it very captivating. I read it a long time ago so I can't say much more... ( )
  dryfly | Jan 11, 2007 |
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