Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s first-person account of the Spanish Civil War, is not a detached, scholarly account. Rather, it bears the mark of its author’s experience and personality, as well as his political views. Orwell’s account of the war is interwoven with his analysis of Spanish culture and politics, which evolves as his personal experience confirms or challenges his beliefs. Orwell is aware that his observations might occasionally be naïve, idealistic, or limited by his perspective as an outsider, but no account can be objective or unbiased, and Orwell’s book affirms the value of its deeply personal perspective despite its limitations.
Orwell’s identity as a bourgeois Englishman sets him apart from the local population of working-class Spaniards, and his perspective on the Spanish Civil War is clearly limited by his narrow personal experience of Spain. For example, Orwell’s general assessment of Spanish politics is informed by the assumptions he makes about Spaniards based on his own limited interactions with them. Orwell becomes convinced that generosity is part of Spanish culture when two working-class soldiers offer him what he later discovers to be an entire week’s ration of cigarettes, in a period when cigarettes were extremely scarce. This generosity moves Orwell, but he is less impressed with the lack of organization he sees in Spain. The Spanish bureaucracy is dysfunctional, soldiers often put off important tasks, and they are not even punctual when going into battle. Based on a seemingly limited amount of evidence, Orwell makes the general inference that generosity and disorganization are essential Spanish traits. This leads him to draw sweeping conclusions about Spain’s political future, including the assumption that, since the Spanish are kind and somewhat ineffective, even if Franco (Spain’s future fascist dictator) were to win the war, Fascist rule in Spain would likely be less severe than it was in Italy or Germany. However, the course of history does not adhere to Orwell’s optimistic prediction. The Franco regime’s long history of repression, torture, and murder proves that Spain was not insulated against the horrors of Fascism. In attributing so much weight to his own judgments of Spanish culture, Orwell was blind to some of the larger, less visible forces that were shaping Spain’s political future.
Orwell concludes that no account of the war can be perfectly objective, but that first-person experience, while subjective, nevertheless contains its own truths. He defends the authority and validity of his account as an eyewitness, however partial it may be, by comparing it to journalism. Orwell explains that most reporting on the Spanish Civil War is compromised by limited access to information. When writing from abroad, journalists often lack crucial knowledge of local circumstances, and, when writing from Spain, foreign journalists are bound to receive much of their information from the unreliable Spanish Ministry of Propaganda. As a fighter in a local militia, not a traditional journalist, Orwell is able to avoid many of these problems. His on-the-ground experience also allows him to identify lies manufactured and disseminated by the press. In his evaluation of news reports on the street fighting in Barcelona, he notes that most journalists contradict themselves, omit crucial information, and publish factual errors. They sometimes even engage in fabrication that has no foundation in reality. Unlike such journalists, Orwell suggests, he does not censor or tweak information for the mere purpose of defending his political views. Rather, he bases his political opinions on the reality he has witnessed with his own eyes.
In addition to noting the limitations of live reporting, Orwell believes that no objective account of the war will ever be written. “It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist,” he writes. “Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda.” This leads him to defend the value of recording his own personal experience, in lieu of any objective record. He points out that “it is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan.” Therefore, despite warning readers to “beware of my Partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events,” Orwell argues for an understanding of “truth” that is not objective, but made up of different subjective accounts. He trusts that his firsthand experiences, however limited they may have been, make him qualified to write about the Spanish Civil War with the intelligence, sensitivity, and honesty it deserves.
Subjectivity and Personal Experience ThemeTracker
Subjectivity and Personal Experience Quotes in Homage to Catalonia
Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shop were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution.
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.
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.
The workers’ militias, based on the trade unions and each composed of people of approximately the same political opinions, had the effect of canalizing into one place all the most revolutionary sentiment in the country. I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragón one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. […] Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it.
I am walking up and down the line of sentries, under the dark boughs of the poplars. In the flooded ditch outside the rats are paddling about, making as much noise as otters. As the yellow dawn comes up behind us, the Andalusian sentry, muffled in his cloak, begins singing. Across no-man’s-land, a hundred or two hundred yards away, you can hear the Fascist sentry also singing.
A fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight, but you are less likely to see it when you are within sound of the guns. […] But God forbid that I should pretend to any personal superiority. After several months of discomfort I had a ravenous desire for decent food and wine, cocktails, American cigarettes, and so forth, and I admit to having wallowed in every luxury that I had money to buy.
On one side the CNT, on the other side the police. I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like an historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away.
As for the newspaper talk about this being a ‘war for democracy’, it was plain eyewash. No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and—because this was Spain—more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties.
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.
I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my Partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.
I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, ‘Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’ This of course was the correct ‘anti-Fascist’ attitude which had been carefully disseminated by the English newspapers, largely in order to prevent people from grasping the real nature of the struggle. But in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it was an attitude that no one could or did keep up indefinitely. Everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later. For even if one cared nothing for the political parties and their conflicting ‘lines’, it was too obvious that one's own destiny was involved.
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.