Homage to Catalonia

by George Orwell

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's personal account of his experiences and observations in the Spanish Civil War. The first edition was published in the United Kingdom in 1938.

Orwell served in Catalonia and Aragon from December 1936 until June 1937 as a private, a corporal (cabo) and, when the informal command structure of the militia gave way to a conventional hierarchy in May 1937, as a lieutenant.

In June 1937, the leftist political party with whose militia Orwell served the POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) was made illegal due to its anti-Stalinist position, and Orwell was forced to either flee or face imprisonment.


Arrival in Barcelona

On his arrival in Barcelona on December 26th 1936, Orwell told John McNair, the Independent Labour Party's (ILP) representative there, that he had "come to Spain to join the militia to fight against Fascism." He also told him that "he would like to write about the situation and endeavour to stir working class opinion in Britain and France." 

McNair took Orwell to the POUM barracks, where he immediately enlisted. "Orwell did not know that two months before he arrived in Spain, the [Soviet law enforcement agency] NKVD's resident in Spain, Aleksandr Orlov, had assured NKVD Headquarters, 'the Trotskyist organisation POUM can easily be liquidated'—by those, the Communists, whom Orwell took to be allies in the fight against Franco."

Joining the POUM

By his own admission, it was by chance that Orwell joined the POUM, rather than the far larger Soviet supported Communist-run International Brigades. Orwell had been told that he would not be permitted to enter Spain without some supporting documents from a British left-wing organisation, and he had first sought the assistance of the British Communist Party and put his request directly to its leader, Harry Pollitt. 

Pollitt "seems to have taken an immediate dislike to him ... and soon concluded that his visitor was 'politically unreliable.'" Orwell then telephoned the headquarters of the ILP, and its officials agreed to help him. The party was willing to accredit him as a correspondent for the New Leader, the ILP's weekly paper with which he was familiar, and thus provided the means for him to go legitimately to Spain. 

The ILP issued him a letter of introduction to their representative in Barcelona, John McNair. The party was affiliated with the independent socialist group, the POUM. Orwell's experiences, culminating in his and his wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy's narrow escape from the Communist purges in Barcelona in June 1937, greatly increased his sympathy for the POUM and, while not challenging his moral and political commitment to socialism, made him a lifelong anti-Stalinist.

Fighting Experience

Orwell served on the Aragon front for 115 days. It was not until the end of April 1937 that he was granted leave and was able to see his wife Eileen in Barcelona again. Eileen wrote on 1 May that she found him, "a little lousy, dark brown, and looking really very well." 

At this point he was convinced that he would have the chance to see more action if he joined the International Brigade and fought with it on the Madrid front; his attitude was still one of exasperation in the face of the rivalries between the various factions.

This "changed dramatically in the first week of May when he found himself and his comrades under fire not from the Nationalist enemy but from their left-wing allies'" in the fighting that followed the government effort to take control of the Barcelona Telephone Exchange.

Republican In-Fighting

The Republican Spanish government in Madrid wanted to assert direct control on Barcelona, which was chiefly in the hands of the anarchists, and decided to occupy the telephone building and to disarm the workers. The anarcho-syndicalist CNT staff resisted, and street fighting followed, in which Orwell was caught up. The struggle was called off by the CNT leaders after four days because large government forces were arriving from Valencia.

On 17 May 1937, Largo Caballero resigned. Juan Negrín became prime minister. The NKVD-controlled secret police pursued its persecution of persons who opposed the Moscow line. 

Antony Beevor notes that on 16 June, when the POUM was declared illegal, "the Communists turned its headquarters in Barcelona into a prison for 'Trotskyists' ... leaders were handed over to NKVD operatives and taken to a secret prison in Madrid ... Andreu Nin taken to Alcalá de Henares, where he was interrogated from 18 to 21 June ... he was then moved to a summer house outside the city which belonged to the wife of Hidalgo de Cisneros and tortured to death ... Diego Abad de Santillán remarked; 'Whether Juan Negrín won with his communist cohorts, or Franco won with his Italians and Germans, the results would be the same for us.'"

Wounded in Battle

At the front, Orwell was shot through the throat by a sniper on 20 May 1937 and nearly killed. He wrote in Homage to Catalonia that people frequently told him a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive, but that he personally thought "it would be even luckier not to be hit at all."

After having his wounds dressed at a first aid post about half a mile from the front line, he was transferred to Barbastro and then to Lleida, where he received only an external treatment of his wound. On the 27th he was transferred to Tarragona, and on the 29th from there to Barcelona. 

On 23 June 1937, Orwell and Eileen, with John McNair and Stafford Cottman, a young English POUM militaman, boarded the morning train from Barcelona to Paris. They safely crossed into France. Sir Richard Rees later wrote that the strain of her experience in Barcelona showed clearly on Eileen's face: "In Eileen Blair I had seen for the first time the symptoms of a human being living under a political terror."

On 13 July 1937, a deposition was presented to the Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason, Valencia, charging the Orwells with 'rabid Trotskyism' and being agents of the POUM.

Back in England

Orwell and Eileen 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 Aylesford, Kent. The trial of the leaders of the POUM and of Orwell in his absence took place in Barcelona in October and November 1938. 

Observing events from French Morocco, Orwell wrote that they were "only a by-product of the Russian Trotskyist trials and from the start every kind of lie, including flagrant absurdities, has been circulated in the Communist press." Barcelona fell to Franco's forces on 26 January 1939.

Reaction to the Book

Because of the book's criticism of the Communists in Spain, it was rejected by Gollancz, who had previously published all Orwell's books: "Gollancz is of course part of the Communism-racket," Orwell wrote to Rayner Heppenstall in July 1937. Orwell finally found a sympathetic publisher in Frederic Warburg. Warburg was willing to publish books by the dissident left, that is, by socialists hostile to Stalinism.

The book was finally published in April 1938, but according to John Newsinger, "made virtually no impact whatsoever and by the outbreak of war with Germany had sold only 900 copies".

Newsinger maintained that "the Communist vendetta against the book" was maintained until as recently as 1984, when Lawrence and Wishart published Inside the Myth, a collection of essays "bringing together a variety of standpoints hostile to Orwell in an obvious attempt to do as much damage to his reputation as possible."

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