Where do I start? Where do I begin with my thoughts on this grim, harrowing, exquisitely written novel of World War I?
This is my third encounter with this story. The first was in my late teens; the second about fifteen years ago. The book made a deep impression on me when I read it previously, but even so, I wasn’t prepared for the strong emotional impact it had the third time around.
An outline of the story doesn’t do the book justice. Quotes are difficult to extricate without losing the flow of the passages. You really need to read this compelling work of literature to understand its power.
Although All Quiet on the Western Front is not a memoir, the author drew on his own first-hand experience of the First World War. Erich Maria Remarque (formally Erich Paul Remark) was born in Northern Germany in 1898. He was sixteen when World War I started in 1914. He was called up for military service in late 1916, and sent to the front in mid 1917. Wounded by shell fragments during the offensive in Flanders, he was evacuated to a military hospital and worked there as a clerk for some time afterwards. The war ended before he saw further action.
This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession , but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.
All Quiet on the Western Front was first published in Germany in 1929 under the title ‘Im Westen nichts Neues.’ Its literal translation is ‘Nothing New on the Western Front,’ and it is the first person account of a nineteen year old soldier, Paul Bäumer.
At the age of eighteen, Paul and six of his school companions were marched down to the local recruiting office by their schoolmaster, Kantorek, to enlist.
‘…there were thousands of Kantoreks, all of them convinced that they were acting for the best, in the way that was the most comfortable for themselves.
But as far as we are concerned, that is the very root of their moral bankruptcy.
…We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than theirs; they only had the advantage of us in phrase-making and cleverness.’
I found an audio version of the book narrated by an Englishman with a distinct English colloquial accent. It annoyed me at first and I almost decided to stop listening as it didn’t seem authentic. But as I got further into the story, I realised that if you just changed the names, the soldier could have been German, English, Russian, Croatian…French. It was irrelevant for the most part, although there were some aspects that related mainly to German soldiers (e.g. the rations they received were much inferior than those supplied to the English).
Listening to someone else tell the story this time around allowed me a different view that I didn’t get previously. It is a universal story that could have been told by any number of young men caught up in the insanity of war.
When I read the book years ago, I didn’t have four boys who were similar in age to many of the unfortunate youths who were conscripted into the army, therefore some of the most emotionally moving scenes for me were those between Paul and his Mother:
Paul goes home on leave. His sister hears him and leans over the stairwell:
‘Paul -‘ she shouts, ‘Paul -‘
I nod, my pack bangs against the banisters, my rifle is so heavy.
She throws the door open and shouts, ‘Mother, Mother, it’s Paul -‘
I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and my rifle. I grip them as hard as I can, but I can’t move another step, the staircase blurs before my eyes, I thump my rifle-butt against my foot and grit my teeth in anger, but I am powerless against that one word that my sister had just spoken, nothing has any power against it. I try with all my might to force myself to laugh and to speak, but I can’t manage a single word, and so I stand there on the stairs, wretched and helpless, horribly paralysed and I can’t help it, and tears and more tears are running down my face.’
Paul’s mother has been ill for months. The doctors say she probably has cancer. On his last night at home she comes into his room and sits there, often bent double with pain, until it is nearly morning. Paul makes out he is asleep but in the end he can’t take it any longer and pretends to wake up.
‘…she asks softly, ‘Are you very frightened?’
‘I wanted to say something else to you. Be careful of those French women. They’re no good, those women out there.’
Oh Mother, Mother, to you I’m still a child – why can’t I just put my head in your lap and cry? Why do I always have to be the stronger and calmer one, I’d like to be able to weep for once and be comforted, and anyway, I’m really not much more than a child – the short trousers I wore as a boy are still hanging in the wardrobe. It was such a little while ago, why did it pass?
‘I shall pray for you every day, Paul.’
Oh Mother, Mother! Why can’t we get up and go away from here, back through the years, until all his misery has vanished from us, back to when it was just you and me, Mother?
‘You really mustn’t send me your rations, Mother. We get enough to eat out there. You need it more here.’
How wretched she looks…this woman who loves me more than anything in the world…
Oh Mother, Mother, it is quite incomprehensible that I have to leave you! Who has more right to have me here than you?
…there are so many things we should say to each other, but we shall never be able to.’
Remarque’s writing is realistic in describing the war and the common soldier’s lot, but it is interspersed with complex thoughts and ideas. The loss of dignity, terror, hopelessness, the tenuous hold on life – there is so much in this book. It has relevance for every generation and has the power to speak into our modern conflicts.
All Quiet on the Western Front is said to be the greatest novel written about the First World War, which doesn’t surprise me. The fact that it was written by a man who was on the ‘other side’ also makes it quite unique.
The Nazis burned Remarque’s novel when they came to power in 1933. It was seen as ‘degenerate,’ and a betrayal of the German military.
The factory owners in Germany have grown rich, while dysentery racks our guts.
The months drag on. This summer if 1918 is the bloodiest and the hardest…Everyone knows that we are losing the war. Nobody talks about it much. We are retreating. We won’t be able to attack again after this massive offensive. We have no more men and no more ammunition.
Remarque moved to Switzerland a day before Adolf Hitler became chancellor and in 1938 was stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazis.
Later, his sister was tried for making anti-Nazi and ‘defeatist’ comments. She was convicted, sentenced to death and beheaded in 1943.
In 1942, George Orwell wrote:
‘The picture of war set forth in books like All Quiet on the Western Front is substantially true. Bullets hurt, corpses stink, men under fire are often so frightened that they wet their trousers. It is true that the social background from which an army springs will colour its training, tactics and general efficiency, and also that the consciousness of being in the right can bolster up morale, though this affects the civilian population more than the troops. (People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war.)’