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Henri Barbusse: War’s loathsome horror and lunacy


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

Henri Barbusse: Selections on war


Henri Barbusse
From Light (1918)
Translated by Fitzwater Wray


Up there, borne by the flag-draped rostrum, a man is speaking. He lifts a sculptural head aloft, whose hair is white as marble.

At my distance I can hardly hear him. But the wind carries me some phrases, louder shouted, of his peroration. He is preaching resignation to the people, and the continuance of things. He implores them to abandon finally the accursed war of classes, to devote themselves forever to the blessed war of races in all its shapes. After the war there must be no more social utopias, but discipline instead, whose grandeur and beauty the war has happily revealed, the union of rich and poor for national expansion and the victory of France in the world, and sacred hatred of the Germans, which is a virtue in the French. Let us remember!

Then another orator excites himself and shouts that the war has been such a magnificent harvest of heroism that it must not be regretted. It has been a good thing for France; it has made lofty virtues and noble instincts gush forth from a nation which seemed to be decadent. Our people had need of an awakening and to recover themselves, and acquire new vigor. With metaphors which hover and vibrate he proclaims the glory of killing and being killed, he exalts the ancient passion for plumes and scarlet in which the heart of France is molded.

Alone on the edge of the crowd I feel myself go icy by the touch of these words and commands, which link future and past together and misery to misery. I have already heard them resounding forever. A world of thoughts growls confusedly within me. Once I cried noiselessly, “No!” — a deformed cry, a strangled protest of all my faith against all the fallacy which comes down upon us.


Monsieur Joseph Bonéas is talking within a circle. Seeing him again I also feel for one second the fascination he once had for me. He is wearing an officer’s uniform of the Town Guard, and his collar hides the ravages in his neck. He is holding forth. What says he? He says, “We must take the long view.”

“We must take the long view. For my part, the only thing I admire in militarist Prussia is its military organization. After the war — for we must not limit our outlook to the present conflict — we must take lessons from it, and just let the simple-minded humanitarians go on bleating about universal peace.”

He goes on to say that in his opinion the orators did not sufficiently insist on the necessity for tying the economic hands of Germany after the war. No annexations, perhaps; but tariffs, which would be much better. And he shows in argument the advantages and prosperity brought by carnage and destruction.

He sees me. He adorns himself with a smile and comes forward with proffered hand. I turn violently away. I have no use for the hand of this sort of outsider, this sort of traitor.

They lie. That ludicrous person who talks of taking the long view while there are still in the world only a few superb martyrs who have dared to do it, he who is satisfied to contemplate, beyond the present misery of men, the misery of their children; and the white-haired man who was extolling slavery just now, and trying to turn aside the demands of the people and switch them on to traditional massacre; and he who from the height of his bunting and trestles would have put a glamour of beauty and morality on battles; and he, the attitudinizer, who brings to life the memory of the dead only to deny with word trickery the terrible evidence of death, he who rewards the martyrs with the soft soap of false promises — all these people tell lies, lies, lies! Through their words I can hear the mental reservation they are chewing over — “Around us, the deluge; and after us, the deluge.” Or else they do not even lie; they see nothing and they know not what they say.

They have opened the red barrier. Applause and congratulations cross each other. Some notabilities come down from the rostrum, they look at me, they are obviously interested in the wounded soldier that I am, they advance towards me. Among them is the intellectual person who spoke first. He is wagging the white head and its cauliflower curls, and looking all ways with eyes as empty as those of a king of cards. They told me his name, but I have forgotten it with contempt. I slip away from them. I am bitterly remorseful that for so long a portion of my life I believed what Bonéas said. I accuse myself of having formerly put my trust in speakers and writers who — however learned, distinguished, famous — were only imbeciles or villains. I fly from these people, since I am not strong enough to answer and resist them — or to cry out upon them that the only memory it is important to preserve of the years we have endured is that of their loathsome horror and lunacy.

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