Henri Troyat: War, that greatest of political crimes
From While the Earth Endures (1947)
Translated by David Hapgood
He laughed, Akim laughed too, but suddenly Arapov felt very old and lonely before this officer who was his son. The world was stupid, cruel, and unfair. People hated each other, insulted each other, killed each other. They proclaimed victories and accepted defeats. Jealousy, hatred, greed and suffering reigned everywhere. One could no longer be selfishly indifferent as before…
They left together, and in the street they heard the newsboys shouting, “Sarajevo! Assassination in Sarajevo!”
A priest stopped in front of Nicholas and asked timidly, “What are they saying? Who did they kill?” He was a young man with candid blue eyes and a blond beard.
“Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo,” said Nicholas.
The priest crossed himself and murmured, shaking his head, “All that bloodshed!” Then he disappeared in the crowd.
…Did he, a political criminal, have a right to protest against war, that greatest of political crimes? Was he not condemned to silence by the blood he had shed? Was he not in some way an accomplice of those who wanted to fight? The more he thought about it, the less guilty he felt. Of course, he shared with the warmongers a contempt for individual lives, he was cruel and realistic; but although he could kill an enemy of the socialist cause in cold blood, his whole being revolted at the idea that millions of anonymous soldiers must be slaughtered to redeem the diplomats’ mistakes…
Michael and Volodia were seated at a small crimson table. A gentle yellow glow, seeping through the heavy silk lampshade, haloed their friendly faces. Volodia was smoking nervously while Michael unfolded a map. The map of Russia. Suddenly Tania remembered a distant evening, in the same room, with the same furniture, the same faces, and the same map with its long folds. Then it was a war with Japan; now they were talking about another war, more terrible than the first, and closer. Akim would go, and Mayorov, and many of her friends. She walked over and looked at the map over their shoulders. Again she saw her immense country lying before her, green and tawny, pocked with cities, bristling with mountains, lined with rivers – her great country that was always threatened. She detested it now. She reflected that it was better to be born in Sweden or Switzerland; there at least you could love in peace.
If there were war, she knew Michael would enlist, so at any cost this war had to be avoided. She had the papers brought in, and read the Novoye Vremia dispatches: Partial mobilization in Austria – Enthusiastic demonstration in Vienna after break of diplomatic relations with Serbia – General mobilization in Belgrade – Wilhelm II returning from Norway. The world had gone insane; mankind was feverishly preparing for the slaughter…