Throughout Homage to Catalonia, Orwell seeks to understand the meaning of the war and the value of his own involvement in it. While he initially conceives of the war as a noble struggle for democracy, his experience at the front is characterized by stagnation and absurdity, as soldiers spend more time worrying about everyday survival than fighting the enemy. Similarly, he discovers that the political atmosphere in Spain is a deeply fractured one, characterized by corruption, persecution, and terror. Nevertheless, despite the senseless suffering and injustice that Orwell witnesses, he does not despair of humanity. Inspired by numerous examples of individual generosity and courage, he affirms his trust in the inherent dignity and decency of human beings.
Much of Orwell’s narrative dwells on the meaninglessness of life at the front. Although he had imagined his involvement in the Spanish Civil War would be a fight in the name of lofty ideals, Orwell is profoundly disappointed by the reality on the ground. Fighting is relatively infrequent, so soldiers are primarily concerned with food, warmth, and personal hygiene. Furthermore, bad luck and inefficiency prove more harmful than enemy fire. Orwell describes the soldiers as a “mob of eager children” who have never been taught to use a weapon and, as a result, they suffer often from self-inflicted wounds. He interrogates the meaning of his involvement in a war that, in many aspects, does not seem like a war at all, but rather like “a bloody pantomime.” The absurdity of war seems to dawn on Orwell when he realizes that the fascist monsters he’s fighting “were indistinguishable from ourselves, except that they wore khaki overalls.” Regardless of the side soldiers are fighting on, they are united by something greater than political rivalry: their collective experience of the reality of war. Generally, then, life on the front was not particularly combative or violent, and it taught Orwell more about human unity than about the valor of violence or the meaningfulness of political differences.
While the front is animated by a spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice, revolutionaries are persecuted mercilessly back in Barcelona. Neither hierarchy nor the rule of law is respected as lower-ranking police officers take part in illegal arrests and disregard release orders issued by their superiors, hoping to imprison as many people as possible. Such political persecution proves counter-productive to the war effort. Like many others, Orwell’s commander Georges Kopp is caught and imprisoned. Orwell attempts to free his friend, whom he considers an invaluable military leader, but he fails in his effort. Orwell despairs at seeing such a valuable commander imprisoned at the time when he is most sorely needed at the front. This wave of imprisonments leads to cruel, inhuman consequences. When Bob Smillie, one of Orwell’s young companions, succumbs to illness in prison after being detained without trial, Orwell writes that “Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive.” A soldier might die in battle, he argues, but it is barbaric to leave a helpless, innocent young man to die when he has committed no crime. Orwell realizes that, to the politicians in Barcelona, a soldier’s life has lost all value, as he is denied even the right to a dignified death.
Somehow, despite this generalized chaos and violence, Orwell maintains an undying belief in the goodness of humanity. Faced with the absurdity of war and the quagmire of political infighting, he turns to those around him for hope. After Orwell and his wife flee Spain, both of them are obsessed with the desire to return to the war. While they know that this idea is unrealistic and dangerous, they feel their comrades’ suffering as their own and wish to share in their plight. In the end, what remains most salient in their mind is the feeling of solidarity and comradeship they experienced in the conflict. Orwell remains in awe of the exceptional courage and self-sacrifice he witnessed in the war. His commander Kopp, who sacrificed his Belgian nationality in order to join a foreign army, never loses his good humor. Not even the prospect of his own execution makes Kopp regret his commitment to the Spanish cause. He exemplifies dignity, fortitude, and courage.
Overall, Orwell’s attitude after Spain is one of hope. Despite witnessing cruel political infighting, unchecked corruption, and injustice, he remains convinced of the value of revolutionary socialism. More generally, he is left with an optimistic “belief in the decency of human beings.” Thus, as much as it denounces the dangers of political oppression, Homage to Catalonia is a testament to the human capacity to fight for idealistic beliefs and to maintain dignity in the midst of senseless violence and chaos.
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War ThemeTracker
Human Decency and The Absurdity of War Quotes in Homage to Catalonia
Every foreigner who served in the militia spent his first few weeks in learning to love the Spaniards and in being exasperated by certain of their characteristics. In the front line my own exasperation sometimes reached the pitch of fury. The Spaniards are good at many things, but not at making war.
Many of the troops opposite us on this part of the line were not Fascists at all, merely wretched conscripts who had been doing their military service at the time when war broke out and were only too anxious to escape. Occasionally small batches of them took the risk of slipping across to our lines. No doubt more would have done so if their relatives had not been in Fascist territory.
These deserters were the first ‘real’ Fascists I had ever seen. It struck me that they were indistinguishable from ourselves, except that they wore khaki overalls.
It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use. I remember wondering what would happen if a Fascist aeroplane passed our way—whether the airman would even bother to dive down and give us a burst from his machine-gun. Surely even from the air he could see that we were not real soldiers?
Up here, in the hills round Saragossa, it was simply the mingled boredom and discomfort of stationary warfare. A life as uneventful as a city clerk's, and almost as regular. Sentry-go, patrols, digging; digging, patrols, sentry-go. On every hill-top, Fascist or Loyalist, a knot of ragged, dirty men shivering round their flag and trying to keep warm. And all day and night the meaningless bullets wandering across the empty valleys and only by some rare improbable chance getting home on a human body.
I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.
I was in no danger, I suffered from nothing worse than hunger and boredom, yet it was one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life. I think few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning or, finally, more nerye-racking than those evil days of street warfare.
It was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one's heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.
In the intervening days there must have been numbers of men who were killed without ever learning that the newspapers in the rear were calling them Fascists. This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive. I know it was the usual policy to keep bad news from the troops, and perhaps as a rule that is justified. But it is a different matter to send men into battle and not even tell them that behind their backs their party is being suppressed, their leaders accused of treachery, and their friends and relatives thrown into prison.
It did not matter what I had done or not done. This was not a round-up of criminals; it was merely a reign of terror. I was not guilty of any definite act, but I was guilty of ‘Trotskyism’. The fact that I had served in the POUM militia was quite enough to get me into prison. It was no use hanging on to the English notion that you are safe so long as you keep the law.
Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal.
This war, in which I played so ineffectual a part, has left me with memories that are mostly evil, and yet I do not wish that I had missed it. When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this – and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering – the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.
It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a frontline trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours.