Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s account of his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It is perhaps the best primary account of the war in the English language.
Orwell’s account drives home the reality of war, which is that a lot of it is mundane. We expect fantastic battles due to overexposure of Hollywood films. The picture Orwell paints is very different.
War is a slog. Most days are spent trying to fend off boredom rather than participating in deadly battles. For those who glorify war, this book is an essential read. It presents a human and down-to-earth view of war that is grounded in reality.
The book also looks at Orwell’s time in Barcelona when he wasn’t fighting on the front. It details the city as it goes through the realities of war and the various states that can emerge as a result.
It’s a fascinating book and one that I cannot recommend enough. I learnt about the Spanish Civil War and the realities of war in general.
Orwell’s writing is easily accessible and he does not shirk from documenting what he sees around him in the most real terms. If you’re interested in history and a fan of Orwell, this is a must-read!
Table of Contents
Homage to Catalonia summary
Takeaway 1 – War is mundane
Perhaps the most interesting part of Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s description of war. Far from being the all-action slugfest, we see in Hollywood, his experience was more sedate. This is why it’s one of the best George Orwell books.
Orwell describes his experience at the Aragon front in intimate detail. Expecting to find a lively war, he is instead confronted with the reality of trench warfare, where not much happens.
His description is forthright and vivid. He describes the long days when he was fighting off boredom instead of fascists. Then, he goes on to detail the awful conditions that he had to endure, such as bad food and terrible sleeping conditions.
One of the most telling parts of the book is when Orwell recounts the situation around weapons. He details how the weapons he and his comrades had were of poor quality. In some cases they were so bad, they didn’t function at all.
War is often glorified by Hollywood and looking back at the past through rose-tinted glasses. The truth is that it is a grim experience with little glory.
Orwell’s experience was the opposite of what he expected. He, like many others, had thought of war as this grand adventure. In reality, it turned out to be a grim and boring spectacle.
Takeaway 2 – Things can change fast in a war
Another interesting part of Homage to Catalonia is the chapters Orwell devotes to Barcelona. It’s clear from his words that he had an affection for the city, and as someone who lived there for two years, I can understand this.
It seems even during the middle of a war, it was still a captivating place. However, the interesting part of Orwell’s experiences is how much the city changes during the course of the book.
At the start, he describes a city that has been overtaken by revolutionary fervour. It appears that the city has shaken off the class structures of old. Orwell remarks that it’s hard to distinguish who is rich and who is poor.
This appeals to him and he believes that the revolutionary principles he’s fighting for are succeeding. However, when he returns from his time at the Aragon front, things have changed.
The city has retreated into a bourgeois state and is less enthusiastic about the war than before. What this shows is that things change fast, even during a war.
This is then exemplified when the unit Orwell is fighting for becomes a political enemy. He has to go on the run and sleep rough to avoid capture.
This is despite his unit and the unit in control of the city sharing similar political beliefs. War changes norms. Things can change in an instant. Nothing is certain in war.
Takeaway 3 – Perspective is subjective in war
Any experience is subjective. In war, this is even more apparent. Not everyone experiences it in the same way.
Orwell’s experience was different to many people. While his account is one of the best first-hand accounts of the war, it is written from his perspective. Someone else at the time may disagree with his view.
One of the problems he mentions is that the war portrayed in the media is not as he experienced. This is mainly because they weren’t in the thick of it and were receiving reports from certain sources.
What this tells us is that objective truth is hard to find. In a situation such as war, objective truth is made up of many different subjective accounts.
This is why Orwell’s account is valuable. It offers an insight into the war from a first-hand perspective. It may be from a particular perspective, but it offers a first-hand account of that time.
With others to balance it against, you can try to develop an overview of what happened. This is better than relying on one perspective, as history can become skewed to that one perspective and ignore alternatives.
Orwell’s account highlights the value of journaling when we are living through extraordinary times. Once they are all over, we can look back and compare our accounts with the more commonly held ones.
We will never be able to find objective truth, but we can develop an idea of what happened that is not wholly subjective one way or the other.
- “Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until manana. This is so notorious that even the Spaniards themselves make jokes about it. In Spain nothing, from a meal to a battle, ever happens at the appointed time.”
- “War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger and cold.”
- “I had joined the militia in order to fight against Fascism, and as yet I had scarcely fought at all, had merely existed as a sort of passive object, doing nothing in return for my rations except to suffer from cold and lack of sleep.”
- “When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by right to feel like an historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else.”
- “One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”
- “It is impossible to read through the reports in the Communist Press without realising that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice.”
Homage to Catalonia review
Homage to Catalonia is a fascinating look at the realities of war. Far from being the all-out slugfest, we think it is, but the reality is that it’s more mundane and boring. This is what makes it one of the best books on European history. You get a real sense of what war is like.
Orwell alludes to this constantly throughout and you get the sense that he was disappointed by what he found at the front.
The compassion Orwell shows to the Fascists he’s fighting is remarkable too. I remember reading this but when I read Humankind and the author Rutger Bregman mentions it, the idea really hit home.
It struck me that people almost felt sorry for one another during the war. They could sense that there wasn’t much difference between them and the war was not the heroic pursuit it was made out to be.
Homage to Catalonia shows us the realities of what happens when hate is whipped up and comes to a head. It’s often those at the front who become more tolerant than those back home who buy into the propaganda.
Orwell shows us that war isn’t glamorous, it’s mundane, dreary and can lead to terror and dread as occurred in Barcelona.
The book should be read as a warning to those who glorify war and what can happen when outrage is stoked by those from a difference.
Who should read Homage to Catalonia?
Anyone that is a fan of George Orwell’s writing will enjoy Homage to Catalonia. It’s a biography of sorts of his time in the Spanish Civil War and is a fascinating and enjoyable read.
If you’re looking for a historical view of the Spanish Civil War, it provides an important perspective of the war in Catalonia.
Those interested in politics will enjoy the book too. As will those who are interested in what could happen if we don’t heed the lessons of the past today.