Maxim Gorky: Henri Barbusse and the mass of lies, hypocrisy, cruelty, dirt and blood called war
From the preface to the Russian edition of Under Fire
Translator not identified
This book, a simple and ruthlessly truthful book, tells how people of different nationalities but of an equal intelligence exterminate one another, destroy the fruit of hard but splendid timeless labour, reducing temples, palaces and houses to heaps of rubble, razing towns, villages and vineyards, and ruining thousands of acres of land, once beautifully cultivated by their ancestors and now cluttered for a long, long time with fragments of metal and polluted with the rotting flesh of men killed for no crime of theirs.
Burning brightly and mockingly in all this is a terrible contradiction that debases man to a level of an instrument without a will of its own, into a horrible sort of machine, created by an evil, dark power to serve its fiendish ends.
These poor heroes are dear souls, but in truth they are like lepers doomed to carry the contradiction between reason and will that can never be reconciled. One would think that their intelligence was already mature and strong enough to be able to stop this horrible slaughter, and put an end to the world crime, but no…No, they have no willpower, and though they fully understand the vileness of killing and are against it at heart, they nevertheless march on to kill, to destroy, and to die in blood and filth.
This frightening and welcome book was written by Henri Barbusse, a man who had himself lived through all the horrors of the war, all its madness. It is not a splendorous book like the great Lev Tolstoy’s whose genius contemplated a long-past war; not a plaintive composition like Bertha Sutner’s Away with War written with the best intentions but incapable of influencing anyone’s mind one way or another.
This is a straightforward book, full of prophetic wrath, it is the first book to speak about the war simply, sternly, calmly and with overpowering truthfulness. In this book there are no scenes romanticising the war and painting its gory hideousness with all the colours of the rainbow.
Barbusse wrote of the everydays of the war, he portrayed the war at work, as the hard and dirty work of mutually exterminating people guilty of nothing except stupidity. In his book there are no poetically or heroically coloured pictures of battles, no descriptions of individual courage. His book is imbued with the grim poetry of truth…
Barbusse peered deeper into the essence of war than anyone before him, and showed people their abysmal delusions.
Every page of his book is a blow struck by the iron hammer of truth at the whole mass of lies, hypocrisy, cruelty, dirt and blood, which taken together are called war.