The British author had arrived in Barcelona in December 1936, five months after the Spanish Civil War erupted, to join the government’s fight against Nationalist faction, whose army-led fascist rebellion had torn Spain asunder.
But it was not General Franco's forces from whom he fled — it was from his own side, the Republicans.
“Homage to Catalonia,” published in 1938, is Orwell’s account of his experiences and so lucid is his writing that it is easy to follow in his footsteps around what has become the tourist heart of Barcelona.
Once a niche activity among sightseers in the city — the third most visited in Europe and increasingly popular among Arab tourists — Orwell tours are in growing demand as a group of English expat guides help Spain recover a period of its history many would rather forget.
Orwell was among the 35,000 foreign volunteers who fought for the Republic in a civil war sparked by the army’s refusal to accept modest reforms to help Spain’s poor. More than 500,000 people died in the war.
On arriving in Barcelona, Orwell describes a city in which the “working class was firmly in the saddle” after anarchists formed an unlikely alliance with government forces to thwart the military uprising in Catalonia.
The social order was razed; about 2,000 businesses — including shops, factories and hotels — were collectivized as anarchists exploited enfeebled state authority to launch a revolution.
After rudimentary training, Orwell and his fellow militiamen were dispatched to the Aragon front, which was about 300 kilometers to the east. With fighting concentrated around Madrid and the south, Orwell’s biggest battle was against the cold and when he returned to Barcelona on leave in late April, the city was starkly different. Revolutionary fervor had dissipated and class distinctions of wealth and privilege were reappearing.
“Under the seeming gaiety of the streets, with their flower-stalls, their many-colored flags, their propaganda-posters and thronging crowds, there was an unmistakable and horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred,” Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia.
“People of all shades of opinion were saying forebodingly: ‘There’s going to be trouble before long.’ The danger was quite simple and intelligible. It was antagonism between those who wished the revolution to go forward and those who wished to check or prevent it —ultimately, between anarchists and communists.”
Aided by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s forces swiftly captured more than half of Spain’s landmass, although by mid-1937 the major cities of Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona remained free.
Tit-for-tat murders stoked tensions in Barcelona, but that only forestalled the violence that would claim about 500 lives in less than a week.
On May 3, the communist-run Assault Guards stormed Barcelona’s telephone exchange in Plaça de Catalunya, which was under anarchist control. As word spread that worker-held buildings were under attack, armed anarchists took to the streets, fighting erupted and barricades were hastily built from cobblestones as myriad groups defended their turf.
Orwell was walking down La Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous street and one that runs south from Plaça de Catalunya, when he heard gun shots crackle around him. He turned and saw rifle-wielding anarchist youths, their red and black handkerchiefs around their throats, edge up Carrer de Sant Pau, a side road off the main thoroughfare, to return fire at the Assault Guards who were shooting indiscriminatingly from the octagonal church tower of the Santa Maria del Pi.
Orwell fled to Hotel Falcon on La Ramblas, which today is the Biblioteca Gotic library. At the time, it was a boarding house for members of his militia, The Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).
Assault Guards seized Café Moka, situated 700 meters north on La Ramblas, which still operates under the same name. They were preparing to storm the POUM newspaper office next door, which today is the Hotel Rivoli. Orwell manned the roof of the Cinema Poliorama opposite, now a theatre, to deter the attack and he remained there for three nights until the fighting ended.
On May 7, heavily-armed reinforcements arrived from Valencia, the temporary seat of Spain’s legitimate government, enabling the state to reassert its control over the city.
Orwell soon returned to the trenches of Aragon, where a few weeks later he was shot through the throat by a sniper. He was shunted between hospitals in Catalonia’s hinterland, before arriving at Barcelona’s Sanatorium Maurín.
Barcelona’s atmosphere was toxic, tension heightened by expectations that street-fighting would resume.
“There were times when I caught my ears listening for the first shots. It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town,” Orwell wrote. “Everyone noticed it and remarked upon it. And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place — it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum’.”
Orwell decided to leave Spain and spent five days near the front obtaining discharge papers, returning to Barcelona around June 23. Unknown to him, the POUM had been outlawed and he was now a fugitive from the Republic government he had come to Spain to fight for.
Helped by the British Consulate, Orwell and his wife obtained the necessary papers to leave and fled by train to France in 1937.
In his writings, Orwell lambasts Soviet Russia for pushing Spain’s government to crush the nascent revolution and then for pretending it ever existed, arguing this ultimately led to its defeat. Orwell warned against his own bias and mistakes, admitting it was impossible to be entirely objective and 80 years later, his work is under scrutiny.
“Homage to Catalonia is probably the most bought and read book on the Spanish civil war and, because it only deals with a tiny portion of the war and yet makes very sweeping conclusions, it has had a toxic effect on the thinking about the Spanish Civil War,” Paul Preston, a world-authority on 20th century Spanish history, told Arab News.
The war shaped Orwell’s thinking in writing “1984,” a satire on totalitarianism published in 1949 in which the main protagonist works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting history.
“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,” Orwell wrote. “The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it.”
In writing “1984,” Orwell created phrases and ideas that have entered the public consciousness such as “Big Brother” and “Room 101.”
Without his experience in Spain, this seminal book may never have been written.
“Homage to Catalonia was the genesis of everything he hated about totalitarianism and was the genesis of both ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’,” Richard Blair, Orwell’s adopted son, told Arab News.
“When he got back to Barcelona after being wounded he discovered he was being hunted and I think that’s where he suddenly realized what totalitarianism was all about.”
Take a self-guided tour
Visitors hoping to follow in Orwell’s footsteps can take in all the main sights with a 1.2 kilometer stroll starting at Plaça de Catalunya, the sprawling square at the top of La Ramblas and the emotional center of Barcelona. On the north side is the present-day Apple shop where, during the Civil War, the Hotel Colon stood. This hotel was seized by Catalonia’s Communist party (PSUC) as its headquarters.
At the most easterly point of the square, where Avengida del Portel de l’Angel meets Carrer de Fontanella, lies the Mobile World building.Then a telephone exchange controlled by the anarchist union CNT, the Catalan police stormed this building, sparking the Barcelona bloodbath Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.
Next, you should head to La Ramblas, the city’s most famous street, which begins at Plaça de Catalunya’s southerly point.
Just a few doors down from the El Cortes Ingles department store, on the left-hand side, is the Hotel Continental, where Orwell’s wife, Eileen Blair, was staying when the author became a hunted man.
Then, walk 160 meters further down La Ramblas to Café Moka, which Assault Guards seized ahead of an expected attack on the POUM’s newspaper office next door. Today, it is the Hotel Rivoli. Opposite is a modern-day theater, once known as the Cinema Poliorama, where Orwell was stationed for several days to provide sniper protection for the newspaper office below.
Next, walk for another 400 meters until you see Carrer de Sant Pau to your right. It was from this side street that Orwell witnessed a gun battle between anarchists at ground level and Assault Guard snipers positioned in the octagonal church tower of Santa Maria del Pi, which will be to your left, on the opposite side of La Ramblas.
A further 350 meters south is the Biblioteca Gothic-Andre Nin, named after POUM’s leader. In 1937, this building was Hotel Falcon, a boarding house for POUM militiamen.