Friday, August 6, 2021

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia Is Instructive on Many Levels, Plus a Good Read

After reading Thomas E. Ricks' Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, I knew I had to read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, the book Orwell wrote preceding Animal Farm and 1984. To paraphrase one Amazon reviewer, a
lmost no war is both more pivotal to 20th century history and less understood by young and old alike today.

I've long been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War without fully comprehending what really happened there. Picasso's Guernica was inspired by an event in that conflict. Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls provides images of horrors that took place at that time, placing a microscope on the characters interacting in a specific event.

When I was in high school I took an interest in Leon Trotsky (because my first name is Leon) with very little understanding of Communism, socialism or any other ism. I knew that he was assassinated in Mexico but I didn't know why he was living there.

When we went to Mexico in 1980 to work at an orphanage in Monterrey, I was only partially surprised to see the hammer and sickle insignia painted on walls there. By then I'd already known that 40,000 communists fled Spain after Franco took power. I did not understand that the communists and socialists were splintered into additional factions, one of them being the Trotskyites. These were the ones who fled to Mexico because of Stalin's efforts to eradicate adversaries and consolidate power.

In short, this book helps illuminate a somewhat confusing period of history.

On a larger scale, the Spanish Civil War was a place where modern technology was used to subdue opponents in a new destructive way as never before. Hitler and Mussolini helped arm Franco and the Fascists. In return they gained many insights that would be applied in the coming global conflict

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The big surprise for me as I began this book was learning that Orwell went to Catalonia not as a journalist but to fight. Most of the book is about his experiences in the trenches or in training. It is a detailed account of the war's degradation and insanity. He does not gloss over anything with regards to the smells, the lice, the confusion. Late in the book he is shot through the neck and his descriptions here are remarkably detailed. Had he not survived we'd never have had the opportunity to be enriched by Animal Farm and 1984.

Orwell's book, among other things, clearly aims to dispel the notion that war is glamorous.

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An Amazon reviewer from the UK wrote this about Homage:

I had to buy this again. I was 21 when I read this. Now, I'm 45. I'm a life long socialist and this book sums up perfectly how the left always fights itself more than the opposition. This is the book I always quote whenever the left turns in on itself (which is always!.) "My cause is more important than your cause etc." is pretty much the left. 70 odd years later, it's still the same lol

Charlie Calvert, another Amazon reviewer, wrote:

This classic book is a cure for idealism. It raised my political awareness about the Spanish Civil War and human nature. The tale Orwell has to tell is relentlessly depressing and frequently shocking. Soldiers are rushed into battle with little training and fewer weapons. Idealists take charge and murder innocents on the slightest of pretexts. The weather is terrible, the food worse and despite the optimism of the troops, one feels they know there is little chance of beating Franco.


For those unfamiliar, Catalonia is a section of Spain located in the far Northeast, a triangle of four counties adjacent to France and the Mediterranean.

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One reason this war was so complicated is that historians wrote little about it, or oversimplified it because that is always the easy way out. If taught at all, this was a Civil War between the Nationalists and the Republicans. Orwell dissects these two groups into multiple factions that include fascists, anarchists, socialists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, POUM, UGT, CNT, revolutionaries and foreign mercenaries. All together it was a mishmash of groups with differentiating agendas.

Orwell shows the uses to which propaganda was being used to manipulate public opinion. When Stalin began to purge the Trotskyists from the program, the word had a fluid meaning so that anyone the Stalinist regime didn't like could be called a Trotskyist with no opportunity for a trial. In order to win public opinion against Trotskyists the papers printed stories that said Trotskyists were actually Fascists posing as revolutionaries.

* * * 
Orwell saw first-hand the ways in which propaganda helped lay the groundwork for mass manipulation. Propaganda was a key feature in both Animal Farm and 1984. During this period of upheaval in Spain, Stalin was actively consolidating his power. 

For writers, there are some really nice sentences. I liked this one, for example:
"We were near the front line now, near enough to smell the characteristic smell of war--in my experience the smell of excrement and decaying food."

Here's another:
"The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants."

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Whereas the book is helpful in giving us a richer understanding of the Spanish Civil War, I believe you will also see many lessons for the times we live in today. I believe astute readers will see many takeaways from this account.


LEWagner said...

Guernica is an interesting story, including the way that Picasso's painting is used at the same UN that is providing us non-stop information about the world pandemic in our present day.

This link includes information from people who went to Guernica, the city, to investigate claims from both sides.

Ed Newman said...

Very informative link. Thanks for sharing.

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