Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

Orwell is back in Barcelona, recuperating at the suburban hospital Sanatorium Maurín. He finds Barcelona much changed after the May street fighting. The city seethes with "suspicion, fear, uncertainty, and veiled hatred." There are rumors of government treachery, defeatism, a communist coup, and the invasion of Catalonia. Police spies roam the streets, and anarchists and POUM members are imprisoned without trial. Armed Assault Guards from Valencia also roam the streets, and POUM members try to keep out of sight. The anarchist newspapers are heavily censored, and there are food shortages.

Orwell contrasts Barcelona with England, which he believes has a stronger tradition of liberalism and individual freedom. In Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War it has become possible to think of "'liquidating' or 'eliminating' everyone who happens to disagree with you." Orwell remarks that the Stalinists are in the saddle and the Trotskyists are in danger. A Stalinist is one who supports the policies of Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), premier of the Soviet Union. The label especially indicates loyalty to the Soviet Union and support for Stalin's control over the direction of international communism. Trotskyism refers to a theory of permanent revolution; it is named for Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), a Russian revolutionary and later a commissar in the Soviet Union. In Homage to Catalonia Orwell is skeptical about the label "Trotskyist" and does not identify with it.

Declared "medically unfit" for battle, Orwell sets about getting his discharge papers from the militia. It is a complicated business; he must go to a hospital near the front and then to the POUM headquarters at Siétamo. He runs into Georges Kopp, who is jubilant; he is sure Huesca is about to fall to the Republicans at last. (It doesn't.) Kopp leaves for Valencia on June 15, the same day Orwell leaves for Siétamo.

Still in search of discharge papers, Orwell undertakes several more "confused, tiresome journeys ... from hospital to hospital." Returning to Siétamo, Orwell notices the mood nearer the front is not so poisonous as in Barcelona. He meets an Assault Guard (member of a special police unit intended to combat urban violence) with Nationalist sympathies at the hospital, who gives him a cigarette, although in Barcelona they would have been shooting at each other. Finally, with his discharge papers in hand, Orwell travels back to Barcelona. Now that he is free, he feels he can really see Spain for the first time. He feels "like a human being again, and also a little like a tourist."

Back in Barcelona, Orwell goes to meet his wife (Eileen Blair) at the Hotel Continental, a POUM building. She greets him in the lobby; outwardly smiling, she hisses in his ear, "Get out!" As they leave a Frenchman tells him the same thing; Orwell must leave.

Once outside Orwell learns what has happened. On June 15, Andrés Nin was arrested. Nin was a leftist communist and former POUM member who became Minister of Justice in Catalonia. The Hotel Falcón, a POUM building, was raided and POUM militiamen were arrested. On June 16 the POUM was declared an illegal organization. All its buildings were seized and many of its party members and militiamen were swept up in raids to be imprisoned without any charges filed. Government propaganda now claims the POUM is collaborating with the fascists. Orwell hears rumors people are being shot in jail; in Nin's case, he believes it is true. "From that day to this Nin has never been heard of alive again," Orwell remarks. POUM members and foreign POUM militia volunteers are being "disappeared." Wives are arrested to put pressure on the husbands to turn themselves in. The government keeps all these events a secret from militiamen at the front. In the rear, the government persecutes the POUM, while at the front the POUM militias go on fighting for the government's objectives.

Orwell's wife tells him about his friends' fates. Williams and Stafford Cottman have gone into hiding. John McNair had been in France, but in solidarity he rushed back to Spain when he heard the POUM was declared illegal. Georges Kopp has been arrested, news that stuns Orwell. Kopp had "sacrificed everything—family, nationality, livelihood—simply to come to Spain and fight against Fascism."

The police have raided Orwell's wife's hotel room and confiscated his books and papers. For some reason they have not yet arrested his wife. Orwell and his wife decide it is safest for her to remain at the hotel; if she leaves the police will follow her. Orwell goes into hiding. He tears up almost everything identifying him as a POUM militiaman. But he has to keep his discharge papers; otherwise he could be arrested as a deserter. Orwell spends a miserable night in a bombed-out church. It occurs to him he never has "any of the correct political reflections" while these cataclysmic historical events are happening. Instead he thinks only of "physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over."

Analysis

The conflict between the government and the POUM leads Orwell into situations that could be described as "Orwellian," a term referring to the dystopian, totalitarian society depicted in George Orwell's novel 1984 (published 1949). In that novel an oppressive government administers every aspect of its citizens' lives, while propaganda pushes them to accept illogical and false statements as true. In the aftermath of the street fighting, Orwell marvels at the illogic of the POUM's being declared illegal in retrospect: "the POUM was now illegal, and therefore one was breaking the law by having previously belonged to it."

In another mind-bending feat of illogic and self-dealing, the government prevents news of the POUM'S alleged fascist plot from reaching the front, and likewise the government suppresses news of the arrests, imprisonments, and disappearances of POUM members. This suppression of news means the government continues to accept the sacrifice of POUM militiamen's lives at the front while simultaneously persecuting POUM members in the rear. This dishonesty on the part of the government is "the detail that most sticks in my throat," says Orwell. Considering he was shot in the throat only weeks before, the choice of metaphor is perhaps significant.

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