George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

October 24, 2011 · 20 Comments

In 1943, three years into WWII, Orwell wrote “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” a long meditation on his memories of his experience in the first half of 1937 which he wrote about later that year. Compare and contrast Homage to Catalonia and “Looking Back.” Pay attention to the different emphasis in both works. What is the intention behind writing “Looking Back” and what does he aim to achieve by writing it? How have his attitudes changed? Is the essay a reconsideration? A recollection? Lastly, how and why does he rework his earlier encounter with the Italian militia man in poetic form? What does he mean by the “crystal spirit” in the last stanza of the poem?

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20 responses so far ↓

  • Kyla Machell // March 24, 2010 at 7:07 pm |

    George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a fantastic account of the spanish civil war in which Orwell offers a kind of autobiographical account of his personal war experiences intermingled with commentary on the political situation of the time. The book seems to emphasize Orwell’s objections to the numerous views and information about the war that he found unjust or incorrect. However it is much more than a historical, journalistic account of his experiences in the events of the war, it is Orwell writing the truth as he confronts his struggle with the modern world.

    I believe it is this struggle to write the “truth” that Orwell confronts in “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War.” Here he speaks of “puncturing allusions” (chapter 1) and pointing out the truths which “the bulk of the British and American intelligista were manifestly unaware of it then, and are now” (chapter 1). With Homage to Catalonia and the lessons of the Spanish Civil War behind him, Orwell seeks to revisit those lessons and experiences in the context of World War II. The emphasis in “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” is much less journalistic and much more reflective. Orwell is rethinking the political criticisms and statements he made in Homage as he considers the meaning of “truth.” His dismay at the fact that “atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on the grounds of political predilection” (chapter 2) is a reflection on the progress (or lack thereof) in the world of the intelligista since the Spanish Civil War. Orwell is asking whether or not anything really has been learned from Homage. The fragility of truth and what one believes to be reality can change along with the political climate, which is what Orwell seems to be emphasizing in the essay. I think he is seeking to validate his writing in Homage to Catalonia by reflecting on his memories of the experiences and analyzing the extent to which the truth according to himself is or is not fluid.

    The issue of the Italian militiamen, which appears in both Homage to Catalonia and “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War is a memory in which Orwell sees the truth of the war. This man, “the flower of the European working class” is for Orwell a reminder of what the purpose of the war really was. The Italian militamen begins Homage to Catalonia and ends “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War.” It is this man and what he represents that Orwell is trying to reflect on and remember in his essay. Orwell looks back on his memory of the Italian militiamen and reworks their encounter to better understand the truth behind it, to remember the “crystal spirit” or the desire for freedom and a minimum standard of living for all people. The “crystal spirit” of the Italian militamen is what the essay is all about; it is, for Orwell, a reminder of the struggle for decency.

  • Janek Jakubisin // March 24, 2010 at 7:13 pm |

    Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938 was followed five years later with the publication of “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War.” Though only a few years had passed since the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of the Second World War, Orwell felt the need to reiterate, remind, and reinterpret the Spanish Civil War in light of the Second World War.
    In Homage to Catalonia Orwell is critical of communism in Spain. The classless society he expected to return to after his first 3 month service never occurred and he was met by the language of class division and street fighting. In “Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War” he reiterates some of the street fighting and sifts through events that clearly foreshadowed the rise of fascism and World War Two.
    Orwell also uses the opportunity to remind the British of how carried away one can get in times of war. He calls upon the time of the Spanish Civil War when the British denounced war, propaganda and the only outcome of it: thousands of corpses. He is quick to point out that the feeling the British expressed toward the Spanish and fascism in that country was quickly dropped as soon as Britain entered the war.
    Orwell’s “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” is a reemphasis of the his earlier work. He calls for the British to remember how they once felt. At the end of the essay he recapitulates his meeting with the Italian militiaman, but in poetic form. This reworking of the story is homage to the Italian who most certainly died during that war. Poetry, at least in my own mind, always has an air of infinity, and the infinity of the poem parallels that of the Italian man’s spirit. The crystal spirit is the Italian man’s earning for a life of equality, a life of justice. He was killed, but as Orwell points out, his spirit never will be.

  • Kevin Barber // March 24, 2010 at 7:19 pm |

    “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” and Homage to Catalonia are companion pieces written by two versions of the same man on the same subject. It doesn’t seem to me that “Looking Back” is a rejection or significant reconsideration of the book, but the essay is inevitably different because it was written after the passage of some time.

    Homage to Catalonia is more documentary and “Looking Back” is more anecdotal and analytical. In the book, Orwell gets the reader “on the ground” in Catalonia, making the often humdrum life of the P.O.U.M. soldier familiar—whereas in the essay, Orwell recounts only the episodes that he finds “moving” and “touching” six years removed from the war. “Looking Back” is more interesting to read for this reason, but his purposes in writing Homage to Catalonia seem fundamentally different. Orwell was trying to create a piece of journalism or personal testimony with the book, I think, rather than a broader statement independent of the events he describes. Since the book was written so soon after the events depicted in it transpired, it’s probably a good thing that Orwell stuck to a fairly straightforward account.

    Between the two works there are shifts in Orwell’s emotional and political approaches to the war and to the public’s view of it. In both “Looking Back” and Homage to Catalonia, Orwell manages to take a simultaneously cynical and romantic view of the Spanish Civil War. (He represents this idea in the “fierce pathetic face” of the Italian militiaman on pages 3-4 of Homage to Catalonia.) He consistently represents the war as a noble, intermittently fiercely fought, resounding failure.

    But his emphasis changes from the book to the essay. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell devotes his attention to the folly, boredom, disorganization, and futility of war, whereas in “Looking Back” he focuses on the popular understandings of the Spanish war and its relevance to World War II. The essay’s treatment of the British thinking Left is brutal; Orwell portrays the British intelligentsia as contrarian and fickle. (“… Official war-propaganda, with its disgusting hypocrisy and self-righteousness, always tends to make thinking people sympathize with the enemy.”) In his view, the stupidity that is so endemic on the battlefield in war translates to society quite easily. The newspapers devolve into party megaphones, for instance, eventually amounting to little more than the front-line soldiers in Spain shouting propaganda at the other side to encourage desertion.

    Orwell’s concerns in “Looking Back” are big concerns, which reach beyond the minutiae of the Spanish Civil War and even World War II. On the pervasive influence of propaganda Orwell writes in part four of the essay, “What is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

    I would describe “Looking Back” as a recommitment. Orwell, disillusioned from the start by the Spanish war and disillusioned increasingly by endless intellectual political pivoting in England, is recommitting himself to opposing the tide of totalitarianism that he expects to overwhelm the world.

    The poem with which Orwell closes the essay is representative of this recommitment. Orwell clearly feels much of the same warmth he felt for the Italian soldier six years earlier; on the other hand, he speaks of the parts of the war he viewed romantically in Homage to Catalonia more romantically, and speaks of the bitter parts more bitterly. The verse is racked with what we might call today “liberal guilt” (“He was born knowing what I had learned / out of books and slowly”). Despite his insistence that he does not romanticize war and poverty, Orwell occasionally lapses. Nevertheless, war and fascism are now baldly described as a “lie.”

    The final line, in which Orwell describes the immortal “crystal spirit” in this Italian man, is cryptic. That phrase may refer to the affection and bond to the Italian Orwell feels but cannot identify or explain at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia. Perhaps that “crystal spirit” lies at the heart of Orwell’s sympathy for anti-Stalinist democratic socialism; perhaps it is another representation of “decency,” an enduring theme in Orwell’s works; or maybe it is the fighting spirit Orwell sees flickering in the face of totalitarianism in World War II. It is a remarkably and unusually optimistic note with which to end the essay.

  • Marc Paga // March 24, 2010 at 7:20 pm |

    Orwell’s essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” presents itself as a sort of clarification on points that Orwell feels have been misrepresented about various parts of the war. He also especially expands upon a concern first voiced in “Homage” pertaining to the abuse to the very existence of truth and facts–something he feels is a new occurrence in the age of fascist and communist totalitarianism.
    Per his explanation, it is almost gradual, first he explains how different ideological sides in Britain would refuse to believe stories reported by various outlets from the front, only to believe them–or at the very least, heavily stress their importance–as it was so convenient. “Truth…becomes untruth when your enemy utters it,” writes Orwell. However, he later settles upon agreed truths; “They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened.”
    Finally, toward the end of his essay, it is clear that Orwell’s admiration for the Italian militiaman with whom he opened “Homage to Catalonia” with hasn’t faltered. In fact, in light of the other reflections in the essay, he seems to admire him all the more upon reflection. It is because in Orwell’s memory of the man that he has a piece of evidence that defends the socialist fighters for a “decent” life against rightist charges of “materialism.” In the militiaman, Orwell sees a man with pure, genuine motive for fighting; a true hopefulness that a better life can be had by fighting. This pureness, this clear and transparent motive is what Orwell meant by a “crystal spirit.”
    He mentions how he mentioned to another that history stopped in 1936. When the role of propaganda in a ideological and physical battle has grown to the level of importance as it had during the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism, the very idea of history is threatened because not only is the verified history of the past purposely erased, the constant untruths about “courageous victories” that never happened and the burying of actual courageous actions that did and other such things makes it impossible for a reasonably accurate account for current events to be recorded for future posterity. Hence, there is no history going forward because what students would read 20, 50 years hence is, at best, a guess of what happened based on wildly competing versions of the events–both equally grossly wrong.
    As I read “looking back,” I could almost feel Orwell gaining the inspiration for “1984.” The whole first part of the novel is spent explaining life in the post-historic world.

  • Stephanie Grant // March 24, 2010 at 7:23 pm |

    “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” re-raises a few issues about the Spanish Civil War that are addressed in Homage to Catalonia. First, Orwell reiterates what it was like to be in the war and writes the surface, giving the reader telling details that develop a vivid scene. He writes, “One of the essential experiences of war is never being able to escape from disgusting smells of human origin.” This strips war of any political sides or agendas. Simultaneously, Orwell presents the participants in the war as humans, nullifying external divisions. Orwell recounts his experience as a volunteer for the Republican army: “Here we are, soldiers of a revolutionary army, defending Democracy against Fascism, fighting a war which is about something, and the detail of our lives is just as sordid and degrading as it could be in prison, let alone in a bourgeois army.” When it came down to it, everyone was the same. Orwell addresses the correlation between popular opinion and the actuality of the war: “At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds.” Orwell justifies his fighting in the war by writing, “To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases.”
    Next, Orwell takes up the relation of popular opinion to belief and disbelief in events that may or may not have occurred during the war, depending on who’s version of truth one listens to. “The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it.” Ultimately, because of the nature of the political divisions, one side did not believe the atrocities of the other side, and vice versa. Orwell is also concerned with truth and a “body of neural fact” that hopefully exists, regardless of who interprets it. Orwell defines two absolutes, or what he hopes to be absolutes, that will hopefully safeguard against fascism’s urge to rewrite the past. The first is “however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back.” The second is, “so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive.” His approaches are idealistic, but that is why he writes: to comfort himself and to remember. Fascism strove to annihilate memory, but Orwell posits the working class as a permanent kind of memory. As long as the working class exists, there will be a memory of the past because even though they are “too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, they easily swallow the promises of Fascism,” they always take up the struggle again. The fact that they are kept in their place as the working class backfires on Fascists who would rather rewrite the past, but the working class’s very existence keeps the past from being rewritten.
    Orwell rewrites his encounter with the Italian militiaman that originally occurred in Homage to Catalonia in poetic form in “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” because he wishes to drive home his answer to the question that he raises: “Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they?” Yes, they should, is his resounding answer to the question he raises. A crystal is a solid material, so a “crystal spirit” would be a spirit that is solid, unwavering. This essay, but particularly the poem, reminds me of Orwell’s quote, “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

  • Catherine DeGennaro // March 24, 2010 at 7:24 pm |

    “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” is less of a reconsideration or recollection of Orwell’s experiences than it is a distillation of his experiences given the historical perspective he gained in the midst of WWII. Whereas Homage to Catalonia is a generally narrative account of Orwell’s time in the P.O.U.M. militia, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, “Looking Back” critically discusses many aspects of the politicization of the war given his own experiences. I believed that he aimed to get to the real essence of the war and the reason for fighting it, as well as to break down some of the misconceptions around the Spanish Civil War and war itself, which were certainly applicable during the time he wrote in 1943.

    In each section, Orwell addresses a different aspect of this. In section one, he discusses the training and environment he experienced while with the P.O.U.M. militia. In Homage to Catalonia, the beginning of the book addresses this same subject in very descriptive, narrative depth, from the lack of guns and firewood to the “multiforms.” But in this section of “Looking Back,” it seems Orwell has a real point to make about misconceptions of wars: “[the intelligentsia has] no realistic picture of war in their minds” (251). He makes the point that “a louse is a louse and a bomb is a bomb, even though the cause you are fighting for happens to be just” (250). Just or unjust, war is sordid, no matter which side you fight on. He continues to cut through misconceptions in the second section, when he rails against the use of propaganda and politicization to shape public opinion on atrocities: “The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads—they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late” (253). Instead of sticking to a narrative of his experience as he did in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell seems to have an urgency, perhaps due to the time he was writing in, to distill his wartime experience and expose misrepresentations of war. This feeds into the idea Orwell addresses in section IV, “that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world” (258) and that there is an “abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written” (258). With all the misconceptions and delusions about wars and the politicization of them, Orwell worries about partisan history, where the real experiences and truths will be lost and never passed on.

    With perspective, it seems like Orwell became very disillusioned by the parties and propaganda. In a way, while Homage to Catalonia is an account of his experience, “Looking Back” is an account of the experience of the people that often goes overlooked. In between clashes between Communists, Socialists and Fascists, there is a very human face to these wars. Orwell highlights this in “Looking Back,” particularly in the section where he revisits his encounter with the Italian militiaman that he wrote of in Homage to Catalonia. To him, the Italian militiaman embodies “the flower of the European working class” (264) that “knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements” (261). In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell offers this description of the man: “Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist. […] I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone—any man, I mean—to whom I have taken such an immediate liking” (3). This is a narrative of his encounter and impression of the man, but with time to reflect on it, the Italian militiaman becomes much more than just one man who Orwell met: “When I remember—oh, how vividly!—his shabby uniform and fierce, pathetic, innocent face, the complex side-issues of the war seemed to fade away and I see clearly that there was at any rate no doubt as to who was in the right. In spite of power politics and journalistic lying, the central issue of the war was the attempt of people like this to win the decent life which they knew to be their birthright” (264). He revisits this encounter with the man because this man symbolizes and embodies what gets lost in the “complex side-issues” when wars are filtered through the intelligentsia, propaganda, political implications and revisions of history; he represents this “crystal spirit” of the working class, something that is pure and unbreakable in its constant pursuit of a better life, despite hardships and discouragements.

  • Nolan Johnson // March 24, 2010 at 7:24 pm |

    Whereas Homage to Catalonia makes no separation of the discussion of politics and the actual events in the Spanish Civil War, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” forces a clear distinction between how the soldiers were living and actively struggling for and the politics which were existed in a manner removed from the war. Throughout Homage, Orwell recalls events of the war with reasonable certainty that he was on the proper side fighting the war and that the knowledge that his actions were just made what he was doing better. In “Looking Back,” he makes no such assertions, but rather argues that the life of a soldier was as bad in the Spanish Civil War as it had been in any other times in history. He makes this point by discussing latrines. Latrines have no politics and smelled as bad as any latrines and clogged up in the same way. Whereas soldiers were presented as fighters for justice in Homage, he argues in “Looking Back” that they came because of justice, but fought for one another and for their own survival once they were involved in the war, not for a higher abstract.
    The intention behind “Looking Back” seems to be to make this very distinction between political rhetoric and the actual events. Orwell does not deny the political elements of the war, but instead argues that in the daily business of a soldier, especially one on the front line, the nobility of fighting for the Republic was easily forgotten or pushed out of one’s thinking for a time. The politics of the Spanish Civil War existed in a vacuum removed from the war. Every country in the world commented on the war and foreigners came from abroad to volunteer to fight; however, once those men became soldiers, they were no longer active political beings; they were just men fighting one another. This separation between the war and politics becomes clear as Orwell admits to being unwilling to kill a Fascist messenger running across the top of a trench. Orwell moved ahead of his own lines for the sole purpose of killing a fascist, yet when he gets the opportunity, he cannot think of the man as a fascist, but instead as solely a human being. For Orwell, the rhetoric and politics that affected the war and influenced its outcome did not interfere with the daily events of the war. Men on both sides struggled to survive, feed themselves, and keep warm instead of struggling with political arguments. These political arguments demonstrated their importance only in winning support for one side or the other in the war and influencing men to fight, but did not matter once the men were fighting. The major exception to the apolitical manner of the war was, according to Orwell’s essay, the possibility of greater loyalty and generosity because of the atmosphere of comradeship amongst the Republicans.
    By 1943, it appears the Orwell sees the destruction caused by war as different from the politics of the times. Every war causes the same problems for the individuals who fight in them and the countries they tear apart, yet they are all fought for different reasons. The politics are constantly changing, but Orwell realized that the hardships, loss of life, and general chaos surrounding a war, especially surrounding the fighting are always the same at their roots. Orwell does not pull back his own political views, but instead uses the essay to address the realities of the Spanish Civil War which have become apparent to him because it is six years removed and he has now witnessed much of World War II as well. With his new perspective, Orwell understands the political maneuvering that existed during the Spanish Civil War, the English hesitancy to become involved, and the widespread use of propaganda, based on little or no facts, by both sides. He is able to deal with the facts of the Spanish Civil War more clearly than he could do in Homage in this essay and therefore his mixing of politics into his essay and the skewing of facts for political reasons does not exist.
    The clarity of his understanding of the war becomes apparent when he ends “Looking Back” with a very different account of the same memory he began Homage with. In both pieces, the Italian man Orwell meets his first day in the barracks has a face which shows he is willing to give everything he has for a friend, including his life. In Homage, this willingness to sacrifice is “the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist” (Orwell 3). In “Looking Back,” the Italian man “was born knowing what [Orwell] had learned” (Orwell). In the essay, his is courageous and selfless by nature, not by politics. The cause of the Italian man’s apparent willingness to lay down his life for his friend is apolitical in the essay. Orwell understands that the man is present in the war because of his politics, but he is not selfless because of them. Orwell ends by claiming that this man’s “crystal spirit” can never be shattered by any force. Once again this reminds the reader that regardless of politics or the political structure of Spain or any country, the man will keep his purity because it is his nature, not his politics that define it. Orwell and the Italian militiaman are both fighting for the Republic, but it is not their politics and side that defines them, but rather their willingness to fight for one another when they are forced to make hard decisions in war.

  • Kristin Halsing // March 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm |

    In “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” Orwell considers the Spanish Civil War, and his memories of it, as a whole, and thus writes a work much more rooted in honest recollection than Homage to Catalonia. It seems that, in “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War,” he hopes to instill in the reader the reality of the war, knowing full well that, by that point, there had been masses of propaganda and incorrect information flowing from the fascist government. In addition, he relates some aspects of the Spanish Civil War to the current war of the time (World War II), in an effort to expose some of the less-discussed aspects of both wars, and war in general.
    Orwell writes, in “Looking Back…” of many of the same things present in Homage to Catalonia, but adds the perspective of having been out of the war for a number of years, and considered his experiences as they relate to each other and to how people outside of the military (and Spain) saw the war. He acknowledges the fact that, the fascists being in power, much of the information released about the war was extremely biased. He brings up the universal point that whoever is in power creates history. The fascists in Spain were allowed to create their own version of the war and life in Spain before fascism. Orwell writes “Looking Back” partly to dispel some of those myths, but mostly simply to warn his readers that they cannot believe the “history” of whatever government or party currently holds power.
    Orwell stresses throughout “Looking Back…” the fact that, contrary to what many would have the general population believe, soldiers on the front lines do not fight from any place of belief in their cause. The slogans and messages from both sides mean nothing to members of the military on the front lines. As he says, “People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war” (Looking Back). However, he also states that many men fighting were, indeed, fighting for the rights they believed they deserved; in their mind, they were not, however, fighting for whatever political party they technically belonged to. The members of the militia on both sides, in essence, had the same goal: to secure for themselves and for all the minimum standard of living. Orwell uses the example, in Homage to Catalonia and “Looking Back,” of the Italian militia-man he met to illustrate this point. That man was not fighting for politics; he was fighting for rights he was denied. In “Looking Back,” Orwell composes a poem in honor of this man. The poem uses the militiaman to represent everyone in the war who fought for an idealized reason. Orwell expresses the sadness that so many died for the lie that their political parties fed them, but he also conveys his hope in the human resolve. In the last stanza, he uses the image of a “crystal spirit” to represent the pure belief in freedom and rights that so many men fought with during the war. He says that “No bomb that ever burst shatters the crystal spirit,” implying that, though war may kill many men, that hope and idea of rights will always live on.

  • Gregory Patterson // March 24, 2010 at 7:27 pm |

    Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

    When comparing Homage to Catalonia with “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” one major distinction immediately appears. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s focus is primarily on events. It was his desire to describe the war as accurately as possible and with as little political commentary as he could afford. Naturally, as Orwell admits, he had to devote some time to discussing the political parties that fragmented the republican side. In obvious contrast, “Looking Back on the Spanish War” is a highly cynical political commentary. Orwell’s disillusionment with the status of objective truth and his affirmations of the true pro-fascist nature of Britain give his essay a much edgier twist. Yet, at the same time there are interesting similarities. In both works, Orwell talks about the apathy of England when problems are elsewhere. At the end of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell returns to England to find it unchanged, safely sleeping. He finishes, prophetically, with the assertion that England will only be awoken by the sound of bombs. Similarly, in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell says, “the thing you most fear never really happens” (pg. 259); the “thing” being the takeover by Fascism.

    The intention behind writing “Looking Back on the Spanish War” is quite clear. When writing Homage To Catalonia, Orwell wanted to write an objective article of nonfiction. Perhaps he believed that it would effect some sort of change, provide some sort of insight into the drudgery of the life of a common soldier. Yet, with this essay, written three years into WWII and five years after Catalonia, the last shred of Orwell’s hope has dissipated. He rails against the lack of reliable reporting. Every bit of information written in newspapers or expounded by governments is fabricated. In a way, history is false. Orwell, though realistic, is profoundly affected by this. Similarly, he is disenchanted with the false democratic rhetoric of the likes of France and England. He notes that if either country really cared about equality they would have given money and support to the Spanish republic which, in turn, would have crushed Franco and the Fascists with relative ease. In writing this essay, perhaps Orwell wants to allot a measure of guilt to those who stood by and watched; to those we manipulated Spain for political ends. Maybe, it is an ultimatum, “the common man will win his fight sooner or later…” (pg. 266) The prophet Orwell has spoken; England was aroused by the sound of bombs.

    Orwell’s attitude has certainly changed from Homage to Catalonia to “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” Though I wouldn’t necessarily portray Orwell as an idealist, I think he did believe that Fascism could be beaten in the Spanish Civil War, that man could be equal as they had for a few moments in Barcelona. With “Spanish War,” Orwell is much more jaded. He has read the words of a hundred journalists; he has seen the propagandists spurting their venom. He says, “I was there, that’s not how it happened.” He has directly witnessed the biases of history and it has severely disillusioned him. And yet, at the same time, he still thinks that the ordinary man will prevail. Through it all, he still holds on to that belief. His essay is both a reconsideration and a recollection. He reconsiders the intentions of all of the parties who acted in the civil war and yet he recollects about some of his memories from that time, particularly the Italian militiaman.

    The Italian militiaman had a very strong effect on Orwell right from the beginning. As he explains in Catalonia, the militiaman represented the time and the event, the trenches, the war, the faces. Over the years, it seems that Orwell has further reflected on this image of the military man and turned him into a tragic hero. In his poem, Orwell writes “Your name and your deeds were forgotten/ Before your bones were dry,/ And the lie that slew you is buried/ Under a deeper lie…” (pg. 267) Time has made this militiaman a symbol of the hypocrisy of written history and the negative effect of political power play. He is a symbol for the common man, hidden under lies, waiting to at last claim his prize. His spirit is crystallized; “crystal spirit”. (pg. 267) It cannot die, but is merely biding its time. The spirit of the common man, of the working class, “the attempt of people like this to win the decent life which the knew to be their birthright.” (pg. 264)

  • Jane Kone // March 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm |

    The impact of the Spanish Civil War was twofold. Firstly, the war set the path for Nazi and Fascist rulers to spread their ideology and secondly, the Spanish Civil War represented a formative period in George Orwell’s career as a writer. With the commencement of World War II impending, Orwell’s attempts to distance his writing from politics necessarily had to be relinquished. Literature could no longer comment on the world without addressing political concerns. This is not to say that the war transformed Orwell into a historian or politician, but rather, transformed his writing to become inherently political. However, I use the word “political” not in the sense that Orwell began writing with a specific agenda or to perpetuate propaganda, but political in the sense that literature could no longer disregard the events of the world occurring during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Thus, the outcome of the Spanish Civil War not only altered the course of history, but simultaneously altered Orwell’s writing style. Homage to Catalonia and “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” are therefore two particularly relevant pieces of work that exemplify two distinct writing styles utilized by Orwell. However, as both texts are written retrospectively, the difference in tone and style between the two works is not specifically a matter of the Spanish Civil War altering Orwell’s style, but rather, the aftermath of the war altering Orwell’s world and subsequently, his writing.
    Homage to Catalonia was written following Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War and although it is a retrospective account of the war, its tone is opposite that of “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War.” While Homage to Catalonia may be written in the style of a documentary or memoir, the text is still literary. In several of his works on the Spanish Civil War, Orwell includes the same information present in Homage to Catalonia. The same stories are told and the same characters are mentioned. However, when comparing these texts, one notices that Homage to Catalonia molds this information to fit the form of a literary text and not that of a documentary of the war. The text is conscious of its role as a literary piece of work, rendering modifications of documentations and diary entries aesthetically pleasing. The very title, Homage to Catalonia, mandates that the text adhere to a certain artistic attitude. “Homage” is a public display of honor or respect, and in this work, Orwell displays his reverence for the Spanish Civil War and the cause the Republicans fought to uphold. Although the text is not without its criticisms, the use of homage remains literary. Homage to a place (Catalonia) can be considered an abstract construct of the idea, appealing not to political discourse, but to literary composition. It is not until the end of the text that Orwell explicitly expresses more politically charged opinions. However, he continues to do some in a manner that is conscious of being written well. The “deep, deep, deep sleep of England” foreshadows the disillusionment Orwell expressed in “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” without compromising the aesthetic of Homage to Catalonia.
    I admittedly know little of wars–of their strategies, mentality, or reality–but Orwell’s texts seem to imply that the sentiment surrounding the Spanish Civil War was revolutionary, whereas World War II, from his point of view of as a citizen of the Allied Powers, was a matter of defense. The task of the Allies in World War II was to defend and survive the Nazi and Fascist implementations the world had proactively fought to destroy less than a decade before. Therefore, when Orwell blatantly claims “history stopped in 1936,” one becomes aware that “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” did not attempt to be a literary work. Although both Homage to Catalonia and “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” are both retrospective texts, the latter is written during the course of World War II. Orwell not only faced the challenge of writing about the Spanish Civil War, he had to do so with the awareness that Franco’s victory created the war at hand in 1943. He was therefore in the peculiar position of writing both retrospectively and at the present. As a result, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” is a more hostile text. The tone of writing is not opposite that Homage to Catalonia in the sense that it is disrespectful to the Spanish Civil War, but a certain frustration with war and people’s attitudes towards war is evident within the text. In such a sense, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” is a reconsideration of Homage to Catalonia to the extent that world events entailed a different outlook on the outcome of the Spanish Civil War. However, Orwell’s decision to conclude “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” with a poem is a consciously literary decision that simultaneously comments on the reality of a world that is less apt to take up arms and fight against evils. The “crystal spirit” which ends the poem is therefore the revolutionary sentiment present during the time of the Spanish Civil War that gave those such as Orwell and the Italian militiaman reason to be reverent of Spain.

  • Lukas Autenried // March 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm |

    In writing “Looking Back on the Spanish War” Orwell’s primary concern was that in observing how the events of WWII were unfolding, he was troubled that many of the injustice he thought was unique to the Spanish Civil War were in fact universal. The disregard for human life, the fear that the truth will be lost to history, the atrocities committed, and the extent of the propaganda being fed the citizens were all things that Orwell saw in Spain and now feared were occurring again in WWII. In this sense “Looking Back on the Spanish War” was a reconsideration of Homage to Catalonia because Orwell’s hope was that the rest of Europe would learn from the example of Spain. Orwell felt that the reason why England had not gotten involved in the Spanish War was that it was too far removed, and he famously said at the end of Homage to Catalonia that nothing short of bombs being dropped on England would wake its people from their slumber. In the case of WWII, this is exactly what happened as Hitler’s air force and V2 rockets descended on London and the rest of England. However, instead of learning from Spain, Orwell saw the intellectuals of England who had been so critical of the handling of the Spanish Civil War make all the same mistakes. The same people who criticized those who chose to fight in the Spanish Civil War as being war mongers were now clamoring about the glory of war. Although those, like Orwell, who had fought in Spain had learned about the horror and misery that characterize war, the people now operating the war against Germany seemed to not have learned that lesson. However, for Orwell, the main reason why he wrote “Looking Back on the Spanish War” was that he was depressed at what he saw as the horrors of Spain being carried out across Europe. When he wrote Homage to Catalonia, there is a sense that he felt that had the truth about what was transpiring in Spain reached the rest the West, there would have been outrage and a clamoring to aid the Republican cause. However, now three years into WWII, Orwell saw the same atrocities that had happened in Spain being carried out across Europe. He lamented about the government feeding its citizens lies about the war, how quickly people demonized those that objected to the party line, the loss of humanity and above all the fact that the inevitable victim of these mistakes was not the intelligentsia, but the common man who was thus denied the chance to enjoy a decent life. Inevitably it was the common man who was forced to endure the squalor and horrors of war, only to have his name tarnished by his own people and his memory lost to the annals of history. That, above all, was what made Orwell write “Looking Back on the Spanish War.” He was distressed at the fact that the loss of truth, the internal bickering, and the victimization of the common man that he hoped England and the rest of the world could avoid by not following the precedent set in Spain were being repeated. Homage to Catalonia was Orwell’s attempt to tell the true story of what happened in Spain; his motivation was to counter all the lies and falsehoods about what really happened. But in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell realizes that his aim was a pointless one not only because the intellectuals were unwilling to learn from the mistakes made in Spain, but that ultimately it did not matter because the notion of truth had all but vanished and the memory of those who fought and died valiantly for the cause were forgotten. This is why Orwell decided to rework his story about the Italian militiaman that he met when he first came into Spain. In first reflecting on his encounter with this man, Orwell remembers the Italian as representing all the optimism and ultimately the truth about what happened in Spain. He remembers both how this militiaman typified the image of a man who truly believed in the message of the Republican cause, but also who, in his shabby clothes represented the harsh reality of the time. But in “Looking Back on the Spanish War” Orwell changes his encounter as the show that although he had great admiration for this solider, nobody else would really care. For this reason Orwell projects that this man probably died and nobody would hallow the memory of his bravery nor know the truth about those who killed him. Therefore, in remembering this young militiaman, the “crystal spirit” that for Orwell represents the truth and optimism with which he entered the Spanish War is shattered as he now looks remorsefully on the events unfolding across Europe during WWII.

  • Nicole Tortoriello // March 24, 2010 at 7:30 pm |

    The initially striking element of Orwell’s “Looking Back on the Spanish War” is the lack of enthusiasm that was evident in Homage to Catalonia. He says in the essay, “Discipline, for instance, is ultimately the same in all armies. Orders have to be obeyed and enforced by punishment if necessary, and the relationship of officer and man has to be the relationship of superior and inferior… (People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war)“ (“Looking”) These sentiments contrast with his recollections in Homage to Catalonia, in which he recounts “Discipline did not exist; if a man disliked an order he would step out of the ranks and argue fiercely with the officer…Even more than the men themselves [the lieutenant who instructed us] insisted upon complete social equality between all ranks” (Homage 9) On a larger scale, the collapse from within the Republican army described in Homage to Catalonia also demonstrates the explicit lack of discipline within the Republican army. As “Looking Back on the Spanish War” was written afterwards, maybe the lack of discipline is to be taken as a partial explanation for the failure of the Republican army. Further, Orwell’s assertion that soldiers do not take the political origins of the war to heart contradicts the format of Homage to Catalonia, about half of which consisted on his, a soldier’s, explanations of the political origins and problems of the Spanish Civil War. Though Homage to Catalonia was written after his experiences in Spain, if the political causes of the war are so insignificant to the soldiers fighting on the front lines, he would not have focused on them so heavily in his recollections of his time on the front lines in Homage to Catalonia. Similarly, at the beginning of the fourth part of “Looking Back on the Spanish War” dismisses the “struggle for power between the Spanish Republican parties” and says that “The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. It is doubtful whether more than that will ever be established” (“Looking”). Yet, Orwell spends Homage to Catalonia trying to make sense of the what happened to him and to the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War.
    This essay, written in 1943 in the middle of World War II, seems to have been written after Orwell’s disillusionment from the Spanish Civil War has sunken in, and was probably exacerbated by the Second World War. It lacks the hope, optimism, and compassion for the Republican Army that was present in Orwell’s descriptions of their inadequate conditions and nonsensical practices in Homage to Catalonia. Whereas at the time Homage to Catalonia was written, the outcome of the war was still unsure, and thus Orwell could and did write of the Republican soldiers with a tone of amusement, in “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” Orwell writes with the utter disenchantment of a man who has lived through too many wars and does not wish to see them continue.

  • Brendan Baumgardner // March 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm |

    As it’s title infers, George Orwell’s 1943 essay “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil” was written with a degree of perspective. Whereas Homage to Catalonia was written shortly after Orwell’s return from fighting in Spain, “Looking Back” was written with after he had greater time to reflect on his time there. Additionally, the continued threat of fascism and the outbreak of World War II both color his prose in “Looking Back.” The result is a subtle but important shift in tone between the two works. Whereas Homage to Catalonia was a passionate and ultimately tragic documentation of Orwell’s observances in Spain, “Looking Back” is more historically and ideologically grounded. However, “Looking Back” is underscored by urgency in the face of rising fascism. By comparing the tone of the two works, one can traces the shifts in Orwell’s political beliefs over the interim years.

    Homage to Catalonia presents Orwell finding his place in Spain. His descriptions of the struggle and the P.O.U.M. and the Republican strongholds are all realistic, but tinged with idealism. Orwell writes of the working class’ dominance in Barcelona, “All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” He goes on to describe at great length the condition of the country, the conflicts within socialist groups, and every other aspect of the war with restrained admiration. Though Orwell has his criticisms, he remains strong in his belief that the struggle versus fascism was a just one. Despite his political affinity, however, Homage to Catalonia serves as a fairly neutral text regarding historical facts and the nature of the war. Orwell does not glamorize or sermonize the violence and the filth he observed, and it is one of the books greatest strengths.

    The tone of “Looking Back” is a less politically idealistic one. Two of the major factors contributing to this were certainly the ultimate defeat of the republic and the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The former was devastating on a practical level, as a failure to squelch twentieth century fascism early in its rise. The latter was an ideological devastation to Orwell, as it aligned what many viewed as the model for socialist thought with fascism, the ultimate enemy. As a result, Orwell’s criticisms of the internal conflicts and the intelligentsia in “Looking Back” are more damning. For example, he describes the Left’s willingness to deny the facts and ignore atrocities in the same terms as he describes the Right’s. He writes, “But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.” This quote illustrates the Orwell’s bitterness over the hypocrisy he sees in the Left.

    Orwell’s bitterness and disillusionment is evident when comparing his accounts of the Italian soldier. While both descriptions maintain a sort of reverence for the militiaman, the one found in “Looking Back” is much sadder. Whereas the Orwell who wrote Homage to Catalonia clearly respected, perhaps even envied, the militiaman’s dedication to the ideology, the Orwell who memorializes him in verse in “Looking Back” pities his devotion. He sees it as the thing that killed him, having given him nothing back. They are not the words of an idealistic socialist from 1937, but those of a betrayed scholar simultaneously remembering and condemning his older idealism. They are the words of a man in a world that has truly been jerked from its sleep by the roar of bombs.

  • Anthony Francavilla // March 24, 2010 at 7:32 pm |

    “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” represents the culmination of Orwell’s understanding of the working class and its position as a victim both in the war in the Spain and in the Second World War that was taking place as he wrote. While his overall attitudes don’t appear to have changed much—he still condemns propaganda on both sides of the war, still bemoans the lack of arms and order during the war and still questions Great Britain’s perceived moral superiority in the face of its foreign policy—but the reflection serves as a reiteration and clarification of his position as a sympathizer of the working class. He supports the working class as epitomized by the Italian soldier, but the dishonesty and contradiction he experience in the Spanish Civil War makes him wary and eventually completely distrustful of political orthodoxy. For this reason he holds the Italian soldier and his blissful ignorance and innocence in such high regard. To him the soldier signifies the spirit of the working class movement without the political bias or intrigue. The “crystal spirit” metaphor, I believe, is meant to show that pure, uncorrupted desire for a better life held by the working class will endure. While a crystal can in fact be broken or shattered, the result is just more crystals that maintain the same luster as the whole.

  • Aryeh Blank // March 24, 2010 at 7:33 pm |

    In “Looking Back” Orwell draws political judgements and considerations from the Spanish Civil War. His goal is not so much to narrate his experiences in the war, as he did in Homage to Catalonia. Rather, it is to study it, from more distance, and derive conclusions about it.

    He aims to describe and discuss the phenomenon of fascism and totalitarianism and uses the Spanish Civil War as a template. He also discusses the phenomenon of propaganda during the course of a war. In this sense, the war is seen to be a less pivotal moment than as he portrayed it in Homage. He is more removed from it, and is fitting it into a context of the struggle for the common people.

    At the end, Orwell describes the Spanish Civil War as essentially one battle in the prolonged struggle for freedom and equality for the common people. He uses the Italian soldier to epitomize this man, who continues to struggle for himself. And that is the “crystal spirit” he mentions at the end of his poem. It is the spirit, and the drive of the all common people to continue the struggle for freedom, a struggle that Orwell says may take centuries.

    That is why he expands his description of the Italian soldier significantly. He has come to represent so much more. Orwell uses this single Italian soldier to portray the hopes and aspirations and spirit of common people across history.

  • Peter Barrasso // March 24, 2010 at 7:39 pm |

    Both the essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War (1943),” and the book, Homage to Catalonia (1938), were written after the end of the war which is noteworthy because both amounts of time gave Orwell time to reflect on the events of the war. His use of journals was crucial to his reconstruction of his experience while writing both pieces, but once again, his ability to reflect on the events of the war increased because of the time lapse. It becomes evident that Orwell is much more reflective about the war and its consequences in his later essay. This is primarily because of the perspective that Orwell gained from seeing WWII unfold and how it had related to the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil War has often been characterized as the place where Hitler (through Franco) was able to test out technology and strategies that he would later employ in the WWII. All of this is significant, when thinking of the later essay by Orwell, because what he gained in the time between “Looking back on the Spanish Civil War” and Homage to Catalonia was a greater perspective to put the two wars into their historical places. In the narration of the book Orwell’s political analysis is present but it lacks the depth which is present in the essay due to his knowledge WWII. WIth his knowledge of WWII he becomes very critical of the various political actors in Spain. I think that his essay is certainly a reflection and also a reconsideration because it allows him to be more pointedly angry at certain actors in Spain when he sees how they were responsible for the rise of Nazi Germany.

    The main difference between the two works is the way that Orwell analyzes the events of the Spanish Civil War. He is much harsher in his criticisms when he saw what the events of the Spanish Civil War lead to in WWII. His analysis is also much broader (in terms of world events), and much angrier about WWII than his political analysis of the Spanish Civil War. His narratives are both analytical, and tell stories about his own experiences and the experiences of other individuals, but in the essay his analysis is much more broad. This is because he simply has witnessed more historic events in the five years that passed between each work. Not only does his reflect on Spain, but he reflects on war and why wars should be fought. But when looking at the two texts, although there are major narrative differences (mostly because the length between the two is so great) the fundamental formula that Orwell uses in his essay and his book are very much the same. Once again, the focus of the essay is much broader than the first, as far as international actors, but the political analysis in the book is very present. It’s only narrow because it isn’t as wide in scope. The depth is relatively the same between the two places, is just what Orwell is analyzing has changed. His attitudes about war don’t seem to have changed a tremendous amount between the pieces. However, his story about the Fascists who was having trouble holding up his pants, who Orwell finds himself having trouble killing reveals something about Orwell. As excited about war and killing as he seems to be in his general demeanor, I think the moment was provides insight into Orwell, and seriously makes the reader wonder about his desire to kill Fascists. Perhaps the event allowed Orwell to reexamine his own opinions about killing by making it both personal and pathetic (the man losing his pants being pathetic – as is the man who won’t kill his Fascist).

    As far as the poem. Why he chose to write the poem in the essay, in addition to remembering the man at the beginning of Homage to Catalonia, is not because of the importance of the particular man (Orwell didn’t know him at all) but instead to symbolize the individuals who fought in the war who would probably die and surely be forgotten. I think the poem helps makes this point standout, by setting it apart from the text, but it also serves as a formal way to remember the unremembered (more formal than his portrait of the man in the book). I think that poems generally serve this function better than stories. When Orwell writes of shattering the “crystal spirit” I think it goes back to notions of individuality in the face of war, in which the individual is often lost.

  • Eric Pilch // March 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm |

    Although Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was not widely distributed or well received upon publication in 1938, the book has been widely praised as an honest account of the Spanish Civil War and also reviled by many Communists because of its criticisms of Soviet actions during the Spanish Civil War. The book was written just after Orwell’s dramatic experiences in Spain that ended with his throat being shot out and a hasty escape from the country after the suppression of the POUM. The literary narrative form of Homage to Catalonia gives Orwell greater freedom to join together the main points he was trying to convey with the a description of events like the revolutionary atmosphere in Barcelona, the realities of trench warfare, the evolution of Orwell’s own conception of the conflict, along with the increasing factiousness of the left wing opponents of Facism. In contrast, “Looking Back” has the benefit of hindsight and the passage of time. Orwell spends less time describing events and devotes greater energy to dealing with more abstract themes like the fallout of the Spanish Civil War, the emotional swings of the intellegista, the nature of truth in a war zone, and the poor decisions made by the British ruling class. This is not to say that the two works solely take up separate ideas and promote different messages. For example, the famous story of the Italian militiaman appears in both works, and Orwell steps back during Homage to Catalonia to analyze the larger international situation.

    Placing “Looking Back” in its context for Orwell—“three years into WWII”—sheds light on the message of the essay. Orwell’s experiences as a militiaman, like many other veterans of armed conflict, seem to have instilled a very bad feeling about warfare in all its forms (though he was by no means a pacifist) and a kind of revulsion at comfortable intellectuals who debate the merits of conflicts. This sentiment might be best articulated by his response to the mailings calling for him to take sides in the Spanish civil war. “Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish. . . I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet-hole in me at present and I am not going to write blab about defending democracy or gallant little anybody,” Orwell explained. In “Looking Back” Orwell is expressing his shock at the vacuousness of the intelligista who can jump from position to position without even the self-awareness of their contradictions. With transitions from pacifism to nationalism, atrocities committed by one side to those committed by the other, everything is ultimately “lied about and made into propaganda” in the view of Orwell with truth as the ultimate casualty. With the passage of time, Orwell seems to have developed even stronger views about the conflict and the lessons it provides for the Second World War.

    After the scathing tirade that composes the bulk of “Looking Back,” Orwell turns to consider the Italian militiaman and the truth he can share about the Civil War. “In spite of power politics and journalistic lying, Orwell writes. “The central issue of the war was the attempt of people like this to win the decent life which they knew to be their birthright. It is difficult to think of this particular man’s probable end without several kinds of bitterness.” For Orwell, this man seems to symbolize everything that seemed intuitively good and noble about the conflict and many of the Republican supporters. Reworking this impression into poetic form is an exercise both in remembrance and glorification of the ideal revolutionary form. Although this is merely informed speculation, I take the final stanza of Orwell’s poem to say that nothing physical can destroy the beautiful expression of proletarian sacrifice and dedication to a noble cause exemplified by the Italian. One could say that the “crystal spirit” lives on in Orwell’s mind and the minds of others who saw the potential of the revolutionary working class while it was ascendant in Spain.

  • Jed Feiman // March 24, 2010 at 8:21 pm |

    “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” was written to look forward. The context in which Orwell writes this essay — World War II — is implicit in his reflection as a whole. And living with a backdrop of world war, his tone has shifted since writing “Homage to Catalonia.” The Orwell of “Homage” seems comparatively more motivated, more aspirational, more idealistic. Orwell’s emotional belief in fighting for a cause – fighting against Fascism – plays a diminished role in “Looking Back,” as the ideal of the soldier is lost to one who is “too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war.”
    War has taken its toll on Orwell by 1943. For example, Orwell, who chose to fight in the war, in “Homage” expresses his fascination with firing a machine gun. In “Looking Back,” he writes, “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” Clearly Orwell’s initial impulse to act and fight is lost in “Looking Back,” replaced with an Orwell who is dejected and disheartened.
    Orwell makes more dispirited generalizations about war. Whereas in “Homage,” where Orwell writes extensively about Spain and the uniqueness of the Spanish people and civilization, the Orwell of 1943 groups war together. He writes of shooting people, “It is the kind of thing that happens all the time in all wars.” The enemy is not a unique cause. He thinks of an opposing force no longer as Fascist or Communist or Franco or Germany but merely an enemy.
    The “crystal spirit” encompasses the values and energy and, to use Orwell’s phrase, “common decency” of the Italian militia man, shared with others of the working class. The poetic form which Orwell uses does a better job of commemorating the fallen of war and allows the reader to sympathize. While we will never truly know the men who fought, Orwell illustrates that the human spirit is as universal as the essence of poetry is everlasting.

  • Randall Smith // March 24, 2010 at 9:14 pm |

    The similarities between Homage to Catalonia and “Looking back on the Spanish Civil War” end at the subject matter that they both utilized. Orwell did occasionally use some of the same examples in “Looking back” that he used in Homage. However, he approached it in a completely different way in “Looking Back.” Homage to Catalonia was very much a look into what his experiences were in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. In addition, the tone used was much more detached. He explained what actually happened in trenches, what the food tasted like, how much shooting was done, and the state of their armaments. These facts were never used for analysis, however. “Looking back on the Spanish Civil War” used his experiences in Spain to critique what was going on at that point during WWII. He critiqued the portrayal of atrocities in terms of politics, propaganda, and a slew of other subject matter. The lens he used to make these critiques was the Spanish Civil War but it was only an example, an object for comparison. His goal is to force people to see the hypocrisies that are then present during WWII as viewed through the context of the Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia, the entire point of the novel was to tell what had happened in the Spanish Civil War as he had experienced it. It gave a glimpse into it from someone who had actually been there. A very good example of the contrast between these two works by George Orwell is his description of the Italian militia man in each. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell describes the man as someone he immediately likes and will always remember. However, in “Looking Back” he described him in poetic form and used him to represent something, his “crystal spirit.” I think this stands for the men actually fighting the wars and what they believe they are fighting for. Orwell never spoke of this in Homage because that was not the point of the novel. These two works stand in stark contrast to each other because they had very different goals.

  • Roberto Moscoso // March 25, 2010 at 1:02 am |

    Near the end of “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War”, Orwell comments on the Italian militiaman, the one mentioned in the beginning of Homage to Catalonia who had such a deep impression on Orwell. This impression is still visible while he is writing “Looking Back” all those years later, but he is also clear on the fact that he does not wish to repeat himself. We see this in various other parts in this essay as well, most notably in his apprehension to look into the Republican parties (256), a fact that is brought home by the P.O.U.M.’s complete absence from the essay. But while many of these memories are painful for him, he does not wish to delve in them solely for that reason: more importantly, it has become quite impossible for him. Writing nearly 5 years after the events described in Homage to Catalonia, it would be impossible to describe with the detail and the authenticity the trench warfare he experienced. With the current conditions at the time of the writing of ”Looking Back”, with World War II well under way, it might have even seemed pointless to a degree writing about a war that was already done with. So instead of looking at the events that he lived through (the training, the war, the politics in Barcelona), he focuses on the exterior. He looks upon his memories of Spain as an outsider, and in the same vein looks upon the events from an outside point of view, or to put it in better terms, from outside of Spain. The few references to direct experiences in the war (like the “Fascist” who was pulling up his pants, or the Arab soldier who had stood up for Orwell after being humiliated) mostly serve as introductions to commentary on war in general. Other than that, we mostly see opinions on such things as the atrocities committed, the reaction by the English intelligentsia, the reaction by the English, Russian, and German government, etc. This wasn’t a change in ideas for Orwell, seeing as to how well they coincide with the England described at the end of Homage to Catalonia. The “deep, deep sleep” (Homage 252) is echoed in passages like “the British and American intelligentsia were manifestly unaware of it then, … they have no realistic picture of war in their minds” (“Looking Back” 250-251). By being able to look back, Orwell here is able to truly see what went wrong in the war (lack of British or Russian aide, the distortion of the news along party lines) and by taking into accounts Hitler’s campaign, how what we saw in the Spanish Civil War could be repeated, to a worse degree: “the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past” (259).

    It is along these lines that we see the reintroduction of the Italian militiaman. In Homage to Catalonia, the Italian is presented as someone who “typifies for me the special atmosphere of that time” (4). The intense affection Orwell developed for a man he met only momentarily, along with the impression that he stood for everything the war was about, caused the Italian to stick in his mind, so well that we see him again in “Looking Back”. He expresses much of the same ideas, going into even more detail: “a sort of visual reminder of what the war was really about. He symbolises for me the flower of the European working class” (“Looking Back” 264). To Orwell, the Italian stands for the fight by the common man to obtain what could only be described as a human right, the right to a decent life. Earlier in the essay, Orwell comments on how the fight against the working class will never end, because regardless of the bribes or of the lies, if their standard of living isn’t increased, they will once again take to arms. This is the “crystal spirit” that Orwell describes, the enduring will of men like the Italian militiaman who will continue to fight in order to reach the sun. They will “keep pushing upwards to the light, and it will do this in the face of endless discouragements” (261).

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