Home > Uncategorized > Henri Barbusse: The only cause of war is the slavery of those whose flesh wages it

Henri Barbusse: The only cause of war is the slavery of those whose flesh wages it


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray


The man of the people whom I am looking for, while I writhe through confusion as through mud, the worker who measures his strength against toil which is greater than he, and who never escapes from hardships, the serf of these days — I see him as if he were here. He is coming out of his shop at the bottom of the court. He wears a square cap. One makes out the shining dust of old age strewn in his stubbly beard. He chews and smokes his foul and noisy pipe. He nods his head; with a fine and sterling smile he says, “There’s always been war, so there’ll always be.”

And all around him people nod their heads and think the same, in the poor lonely well of their heart. They hold the conviction anchored to the bottom of their brains that things can never change any more. They are like posts and paving stones, distinct but cemented together; they believe that the life of the world is a sort of great stone monument, and they obey, obscurely and indistinctly, everything which commands; and they do not look afar, in spite of the little children. And I remember the readiness there was to yield themselves, body and soul, to serried resignation. Then, too, there is alcohol which murders; wine, which drowns.

One does not see the kings; one only sees the reflection of them on the multitude.


The newspapers, the somber host of the great prevailing newspapers, fall upon the minds of men and wrap them up. The daily siftings link them together and chain them up, and forbid them to look ahead. And the impecunious papers show blanks in the places where the truth was too clearly written. At the end of a war, the last things to be known by the children of the slain and by the mutilated and worn-out survivors will be all the war-aims of its directors.

Suddenly they reveal to the people an accomplished fact which has been worked out in the terra incognita of courts, and they say, “Now that it is too late, only one resource is left you — Kill that you be not killed.”

They brandish the superficial incident which in the last hour has caused the armaments and the heaped-up resentment and intrigues to overflow in war; and they say, “That is the only cause of the war.” It is not true; the only cause of war is the slavery of those whose flesh wages it.

They say to the people, “When once victory is gained, agreeably to your masters, all tyranny will have disappeared as if by magic, and there will be peace on earth.” It is not true. There will be no peace on earth until the reign of men is come.

But will it ever come? Will it have time to come, while hollow-eyed humanity makes such haste to die? For all this advertisement of war, radiant in the sunshine, all these temporary and mendacious reasons, stupidly or skillfully curtailed, of which not one reaches the lofty elevation of the common welfare — all these insufficient pretexts suffice in sum to make the artless man bow in bestial ignorance, to adorn him with iron and forge him at will.

“It is not on Reason,” cried the specter of the battlefield, whose torturing spirit was breaking away from his still gilded body; “it is not on Reason that the Bible of History stands. Else are the law of majesties and the ancient quarrel of the flags essentially supernatural and intangible, or the old world is built on principles of insanity.”

He touches me with his strong hand and I try to shake myself, and I stumble curiously, although lying down. A clamor booms in my temples and then thunders like the guns in my ears; it overflows me — I drown in that cry –

“It must be! It has to be! You shall not know!” That is the war-cry, that is the cry of war.

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