I had wanted to read this book for decades and at the same time avoided it for decades. The narrative of the book, told in the first person perspective of a regular German soldier about the fighting in northern France along a meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, known as World War One's Western Front, is quite haunting.
While not an autobiography, Erick Maria Remarque drew from his own experiences and impressions about the war. Born 1898 in the town of Osnabrueck, he was drafted in 1916 and moved to the western front near Flanders, where he was suffered injuries from grenade splinters and a shot to the neck. After recovering in an army hospital, he got lucky as the war ended before he could be sent back.
Ten years after the war ended, he published his classic, describing the ordinary German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. Though other books had explored the violence and brutality of war in a realistic light, the literary tradition of war stories still tended overwhelmingly toward romanticized ideals of glory, adventure, and honor. In presenting his grimly realistic version of a soldier’s experience, Remarque stripped the typical romanticism from the war narrative in his staunchly antiwar novel. It sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first eighteen months in print. Not surprisingly, his book, regarded by Hitler as unpatriotic, was banned and burnt in Nazi Germany in 1933. Having lived in Berlin since 1924, Remarque fled to Switzerland in 1932 and later moved to the USA. He died 1970 in Tessin, Switzerland.
The overriding theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the terrible brutality of war, portraying war as it was actually experienced. The novel is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches of their teacher. But after experiencing the unimaginable brutality of life on the front, Paul and his friends realized that the ideals of nationalism and patriotism for which they enlisted are simply empty clichés. They no longer believe that war is glorious or honorable, and they live in constant physical terror.
As one example of the many horrifying stories, the soldiers experience is a night, where the men go on a harrowing mission to lay barbed wire at the front. Pounded by artillery, they hide in a graveyard, where the force of the shelling causes the buried corpses to emerge from their graves, as groups of living men fall dead around them. Men are blown apart, limbs are severed from torsos, and giant rats pick at the dead and the wounded. After this gruesome event, the surviving soldiers return to their camp, where they kill lice and think about what they will do at the end of the war. Some of the men have tentative plans, but all of them seem to feel that the war will never end. Paul fears that if the war did end, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. In October 1918, on a day with very little fighting, Paul is killed - the last to die of all his friends. The army report for that day reads simply: “All quiet on the Western Front.” Paul’s corpse wears a calm expression, as though relieved that the end has come at last.
World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence. Whereas war battles before could be construed as chivalrous engagement of noble warriors, the battles of WW1 lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. In fact, total casualties from
the major battles at the Western Front ranged from 3,619,838 to 4,077,838 for the Allies and 3,370,731 to 3,684,025 for Germany (in comparison German military casualties in all of World War 2 were around 3,500,000 and that of the WW1-Allies (UK, France, US) were about 1,000,000).
Remarque especially focuses on the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers who fight it, which he describes as as a crippling overload of panic and despair. He concludes that the only way for soldiers to survive is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, suppressing their emotions and accepting the conditions of their lives. In its depiction of this horror, Remarque presents a scathing critique of the ideals of nationalism and patriotism, showing it to be a hollow, hypocritical ideology, a tool used by those in power to control a nation’s populace. Remarque illustrates that soldiers on the front fight not for the glory of their nation but rather for their own survival. Additionally, Paul and his friends do not consider the opposing armies to be their real enemies; in their view, their real enemies are the men in power in their own nation, who they believe have sacrificed them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory. No wonder, Hitler and the Nazis did not approve of his book.
While the book can be pretty depressing, I was glad in the end that I got to read it. I always felt that WW1 was the turning point in the way soldiers experience fighting. And, given that massive carnage, Remarque helps us to question reasons why countries go to war in the first place as through the eyes of the novel's characters we cannot help but ask ourselves what exactly an enemy is. While Remarque lost his citizenship under the Nazis, I consider him one of the great German authors of the 20th century and agree with the NYT Book Review that wrote, "The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure."