Homage to Spain

Douglas Johnson

  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
    Secker, 260 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 436 35028 9
  • The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas
    Hamish Hamilton, 1115 pp, £20.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 241 89450 6
  • The Triumph of Democracy in Spain by Paul Preston
    Methuen, 274 pp, £14.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 416 36350 4

Revolutions have frequently been analysed and categorised. Wars, and the art of war, have been carefully studied. But the category of civil wars has been neglected. Perhaps this is because they are difficult to recognise or to define. Should we continue to write about guerres franco-françaises, arising from the Paris Commune, the Resistance movements, or the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète formed by Algerian settlers, or should we think of them as civil wars? Often there is a reluctance to admit to the existence of civil wars as anything other than an accident or temporary aberration: many English historians have liked to play down the importance of the English Civil War and tell anecdotes about the way in which the two sides paused at the moment of battle so that a hunting party could pass between them, or, more philosophically, to ask whether the Civil War had any effect on English history at all. Civil wars can be dismissed as the terrorist activities of small groups of individuals whose aggressive intolerance or violent insistence upon their own identities causes them to reject, for as long as they can, the society that envelops them. Since the antagonists in civil wars invariably appeal to foreigners to come and assist them, the story of civil wars becomes embroiled in questions of invasion and of international relations, thus creating the sort of complexities which make historians impatient.

The great exception to these rules is the Spanish Civil War. It is appropriate that new editions of the two books that have probably most influenced our understanding of and feelings about this war should appear this year – the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s beginning. Homage to Catalonia is published as one of the first volumes of the complete works of George Orwell, for which the editor, Dr Peter Davison, uses Orwell’s original manuscripts, letters and proofs to establish the text that Orwell would have wished to have. In the case of this work, among the most personal and directly political of Orwell’s writings, he has made particular use of the correspondence which Orwell had with his French translator, Yvonne Davet, to whom he suggested both revisions of the text as first published in 1938 and a change in the chapter order, with Chapters Five and Eleven being relegated to appendices, on the grounds that they contained concentrated political analysis which interrupted the flow of Orwell’s narration.

Hugh Thomas’s book first appeared in 1961 and was then the first major historical study of the war, written at a time when no one in Spain could contemplate writing an objective study of any part of its modern history. With its revised editions of 1965 and 1976, it has long remained the basic historical work to which generations of historians have turned in order to study this difficult and controversial subject, although many distinguished studies of the subject have appeared since (by historians such as Paul Preston, Raymond Carr and Martin Blinkhorn, to mention three British examples).

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