Homage to Catalonia | Study Guide

Orwell

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Homage to Catalonia | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

On May 3, 1937, a friend of George Orwell's tells him there is "some kind of trouble at the Telephone Exchange," the building that houses the heart of the city's telephone system. At first Orwell pays no attention to the rumor, but that afternoon he hears rifle fire ring out in the city. Young people in red-and-black anarchist handkerchiefs are exchanging shots with someone in a church tower.

In the company of an American doctor, Orwell makes his way to the Hotel Falcón, a building occupied by the POUM. The American doctor explains the situation. The Assault Guards, a kind of militarized urban police, have attacked the Telephone Exchange building, which has up until now been a stronghold of workers who belong to the CNT. The CNT is the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor), a confederation of anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist unions. The CNT is also affiliated with the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (Iberian Anarchist Federation), so the whole organization has also been called the CNT-FAI.

When Orwell reaches the Hotel Falcón he finds it in an uproar. He goes across the street to another PM building, the Comité Local or Local Committee Building. He is given a rifle and a small number of cartridges. Orwell hears that the Assault Guards are out to get the CNT. A PM militia boy steals Orwell's rifle, and Orwell is left only with his pistol for protection.

Orwell tries to call his wife. He fails to get her but reaches John McNair, the ILP (International Labour Party) representative in Barcelona. McNair reassures Orwell everything is fine. Orwell and another Englishman make their way to the armory in Comité Local, but there are no more guns there. Several tense days and nights pass, marked by rumors and food shortages. The Assault Guards move into a building right next to the Comité Local, the Café Moka. One day some PM Shock Troopers are "bowling bombs [grenades] down the pavement as though playing skittles." Two grenades lie on the sidewalk, and Kopp orders his men to detonate them by shooting them. Orwell fires and misses; this will be the only shot he fires in all the days of conflict in Barcelona in May 1937.

Kopp tells Orwell they have to defend the PM building if attacked. However, Kopp adds, the PM leaders want the militia to be defensive only, and to avoid firing if possible. Orwell is assigned to the roof of a nearby movie theater, the Poliorama, from where he can command a view of the city. It is "strangely peaceful" there, and he spends hours reading novels. The Assault Guards assemble on the roof of the Café Moka and build a barricade there, but "it [is] obvious that they had no wish to start a fight." They give Koop 15 bottles of beer, and, remarkably, Kopp gives them some rifles.

A nearby hotel, the Hotel Continental, is considered neutral territory, and people of all political persuasions gather there. The regulars even include some who look like fascist sympathizers, and a "fat, sinister-looking Russian" nicknamed Charlie Chan, "said to be an agent of Ogpu [OGPU, a Soviet secret police organization]." People begin to feel the street fighting is unimportant, just "a dust-up between the Anarchists and police."

On Wednesday May 5 things seem to change. Orwell learns the office of La Batalla, the PM newspaper, was seized by Assault Guards, as was the Telephone Exchange. "No one wanted this to develop into a full-sized civil war" among the various Republican parties, "which might mean losing the war against Franco." The CNT wants only two things: the return of the Telephone Exchange and "an end to the food profiteering." But the Generalidad (the government of Catalonia at the time) is unwilling to give in. Rumors fly: the government is sending 6,000 troops from Valencia to occupy Barcelona, and 5,000 PM and anarchist soldiers are coming to oppose them. The rumor about Valencia is true.

Kopp tells Orwell the government is getting ready to outlaw the PM and declare war on it. Orwell foresees the PM will become a scapegoat, taking blame for all the street fighting in Barcelona. Kopp tells Orwell if the PM is outlawed, they must defend the Comité Local building against the Assault Guards, who are sure to swarm over from Café Moka. That night, dreading the battle in which he believes he will be killed, Orwell rests uneasily on a sofa. He wakes late the next morning, watched over by his wife. The night had been uneventful.

That afternoon, May 6, there is an unofficial ceasefire. But then shots ring out again, and the fight is back on. Orwell goes back to the rooftop "with a feeling of concentrated disgust and fury." He also notices that people in historically significant battles—such as himself at this moment—never feel "like an historical character," and they cannot get an overview of events. Instead the physical misery of soldiering outweighs every other thought and feeling. "If this was history it did not feel like it," Orwell remarks.

On Friday May 7, the fighting seems to be coming to an end. Orwell can see the Catalan flag is flying over the Telephone Exchange, and no longer the anarchist flag. Late that evening the Assault Guards from Valencia arrive. Orwell and another man carefully smuggle six rifles from the movie theater back to the PM armory—the PM cannot afford the loss of even a single one. The next day the Valencian Assault Guards strut around the town, and Orwell notices how well dressed, well armed, and well fed they are. "Always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line," Orwell remarks.

As the shooting ceases, the hostile feeling between the various factions only increases. There is "a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police." A communist friend of Orwell's approaches him about joining the International Brigades, the communist battalions of international volunteers. Orwell says he cannot join a communist unit after what has happened in Barcelona; he might be "used against the Spanish working class." Thinking back, Orwell recalls "the horrible atmosphere" in Barcelona in those days, a mixture of "fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men." But many civilians in Barcelona felt nothing of that horrible atmosphere; for some noncombatants "the whole thing was simply a meaningless uproar." Soon newspaper accounts of the fighting come out; they, along with the books written about it since, "are nine-tenths ... untruthful," says Orwell.

Analysis

As with the nighttime raid, the street fighting in Barcelona is narrated by Orwell without much background or analysis. Kopp's explanation of what is happening is brief: the government has attacked the Telephone Exchange. Thus readers experience the battle from a somewhat confused, uncertain standpoint. The confusion is not allayed until the Appendixes, where Orwell put most of his political analysis. This leaves the rest of Homage to Catalonia as a streamlined narrative.

As Orwell explains in the Appendixes, in the revolutionary fervor of the new Spanish Republic, many industries were collectivized. The Telephone Exchange building is occupied by CNT workers, who are anarcho-syndicalists. Syndicalism means unionism (or trade unionism, as it's also called). Anarcho-syndicalists believe in doing without government; in its place, they propose to organize society through syndicates or unions. The anarcho-syndicalists believe in direct action on the part of workers. This system of beliefs put the CNT and other anarchists on a collision course with the communist government of the Spanish Republic. To anarchists, "direct action" means doing without elected representatives, police, or other kinds of mediation and enforcement in society. The communists, as Orwell explains in the Appendixes, were fundamentally opposed to anarchist direct action. Occupying buildings, replacing government functions with DIY self-organized groups, collectivizing industries—all these direct actions spelled revolution for the anarchists and chaos for the communists. The communists wanted to win the war and not alienate the middle classes; the anarchists wanted to win the war and not prop up capitalism in the Republic. Apart from both wanting to defeat fascism, the anarchists and communists fundamentally did not want the same things in the Spanish Civil War. It wasn't a case of the anarchists moving quickly and the communists moving slowly toward the same goal; the two sides had different goals. Thus the Popular Front—the strategy of uniting radical and moderate parties together to beat back fascism—fell apart in the May Days in Barcelona in 1937.

This is the political background of the events in Chapter 9; by now the tensions between the two antifascist groups have broken out into hostility. Orwell sees this reflected, not only in the street fighting, but also in the tense interpersonal interactions in the days before the fighting. One could no longer "'agree to differ' and have drinks with a man who was supposedly your political opponent," Orwell observes.

Later in the war Orwell will be shot through the throat by a sniper, and he will have to wait 9 or 10 agonizing days before having his wound examined by a doctor. At various points in the war Orwell also endures hunger, vermin, boredom, and fear. In Barcelona in May, by contrast, Orwell spends much of the time as a lookout atop a movie house, where he "was in no danger." In all the days of street fighting he fires only one shot, in a failed attempt to detonate a fellow militiaman's dud grenade. And yet Orwell calls the hours he spends atop the movie house in Barcelona, waiting for the Assault Guards' attack, "one of the most unbearable periods of my whole life." It is not only the nervous tension that pains Orwell but also the disillusionment of seeing Republican pitted against Republican. In all, Orwell finds "few experiences could be more sickening, more disillusioning or, finally, more nerve-racking than those evil days of street warfare."

Bringing the war from the front to the city has some strange effects. The clarity and openheartedness of fellow soldiers on the front is replaced by the treachery and infighting of the city. At the same time many people in the city—the civilians, the noncombatants—are entirely wrapped up in their everyday lives, oblivious to the stakes of the battle. For them "the whole thing was simply a meaningless uproar." This only adds to Orwell's disillusionment; the people he fights to free from fascism are just waiting for all the "meaningless" racket to die down.

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