Nov 16, 2012

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel is one of the seminal accounts of WW1. The narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Bäumer, is a German soldier who was urged by his school master to join the war. He is not yet 20 years old when he begins his narrative, but the horrors he and his schoolmates have witnessed have made him weary. Throughout the novel, Paul Bäumer describes the senseless slaughter of the war, the terrible conditions the soldiers endured, and especially the psychological effect that making killing the centre of their world has had on these young men.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a horrifying novel about how a generation of boys “were destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling”, as Remarque puts it in the preface. Yet for all its bleakness, this is an easy novel to fall in love with, particularly because of Paul Bäumer’s narrative voice. He’s thoughtful, deeply humane, warm in his telling despite all his disillusionment, and capable of highlighting both the little moments of connection the war brought about and all the darkness that underpinned them.

The scene that moved me the most was probably the one where Paul stabs a French soldier who jumps into his hideout during an attack and then has to watch him die slowly:
The silence spreads. I talk, I have to talk. So I talk to him and tell him directly, ‘I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in here again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, camarade! We always realize too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain. Forgive me, camarade, how could you be my enemy? If we threw these uniforms and weapons away you could be just as much my brother as Kat and Albert. Take twenty years from my life, camarade, and get up again – take more, because I don't know what I am going to do with the years I’ve got.’
Of course that everything changes when abstract ideas become living, breathing human beings – and yet the war effort is entirely dependent on this depersonalization; on the dehumanisation of the enemy. This is “why they don’t keep on reminding [them]”: the idea that to kill fellow human beings in such a massive scale could be in any way justifiable would completely fall apart if their humanity was brought into focus.

Almost as moving is the scene where, when he has a few days off, Paul returns to his childhood bedroom, looks through the books on his shelf, and realised that after his war experiences they have completely lost the power to move him. This scene draws attention to a different kind of war damage, but one no less worthy of mourning.

Remarque also does a wonderful job of highlighting the powerlessness and helplessness that ordinary soldiers had to face day after day. Here are Paul’s remarks on how much his survival was dependent on blind chance:
Chance is hovering over us. If there is a shot, all I can do is duck; I don’t know for sure and I can’t influence where it is going to come down.
It’s this awareness of chance that makes us so indifferent. A few months ago I was playing cards in a dugout; after a bit I got up and went out to go talk to some men I knew in another dugout. When I got back, there was nothing left of the first one, a direct hit from a heavy shell had flattened it. I went back to the other dugout and got there just in time to help dig the men out. While I was away it had been buried.
It is simply a matter of chance whether I am hit on whether I go on living. I can be squashed flat in a bomb-proof dugout, and I can survive ten hours in the open under heavy barrage without a scratch. Every soldier owes the fact that he is still alive to lucky chance and nothing else. And every soldier believes in and trusts to chance.
This passage put me in mind of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy: one of the central themes of the series is that WW1 disestablished traditional notions of gender identity because even though the war was being sold to young men as a big adventure, in reality it involved a lot of waiting; a lot of passivity and powerlessness – all things they’d grown up to associate with femininity. Young men expected to be in control, and yet in the war they were anything but.

There’s something especially sad about the ending of All Quiet on the Western Front — not so much because of Paul’s fate, which didn’t exactly come as a surprise, but in the disembodied narrative voice that tells us that “you could see that he had not suffered long”. Earlier in the novel, we see Paul swear on his life to the mother of one of friends that he died quickly and without pain. And yet the reader knows what’s behind this official story, so when Paul’s turn comes we can’t take it at face value. There’s of course something merciful about Paul’s lie, but at the same time, it’s troubling to think of the real story being erased, of history as told by the powerful becoming the surviving narrative. The thought makes me all the more grateful for books like this.

Other memorable passages:
Albert puts it into words. ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’
He’s right. We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things anymore; we believe in the war.

I am young, I am twenty years of age; but I know nothing of life except despair, death, fear, and the combination of completely mindless superficiality with an abyss of suffering. I see people being driven against one another, and silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently, and innocently killing one another. I see the best brains in the world inventing weapons and words to make the whole process that much more sophisticated and long-lasting. And watching this with me are all my contemporaries, here and on the other side, all over the world – my whole generation is experiencing this with me. What would our fathers do it one day we rose up and confronted them, and called them to account? What do they expect from us when a time comes in which there is no more war? For years our occupation has been killing – that was the first experience we had. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what can possibly become of us?
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18 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Interesting bit by Pat Barker, especially if one juxtaposes it with Theodore Roosevelt's rah rah advocacy of war, pushing for the Spanish American War, for example, precisely in order to reassert the "values" of "manhood". And so glad you linked to your review of The Regeneration Trilogy because somehow I missed it when it came out!

Debi said...

This is one of those books that truly surprised me by how much I fell in love with it.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

Jill: Oh, you so have to read Regeneration! I think it's exactly your sort of think. And yes, the rhetoric of " real manhood" has been used so often in these cases.

Debi: Thanks again for putting it on my list :D

bermudaonion said...

The thought of people that young facing atrocities like that just makes my heart ache. My dream is that no more young people will be destroyed by war.

Kailana said...

Debit sent me this book and I STILL haven't read it. I had planned to read it and Regeneration this year, but didn't happen. :(

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

That scene with Paul and the French soldier just broke my heart. This book is a perfect example of seeing the world from another person's point of view. War is foreign to me and seeing it through the eyes of a soldier is particularly powerful. Wonderful review and thank you for including a link to mine!

Celine said...

One of my absolute favorites and a book that has influenced my own work no end.

I wonder have you read Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way?(it's nothing like this book as a reading experience, but still I feel obliged to suggest it in connection with AQotWF, as it portrays the Irish experience of WW1. It's also a stunning read. (beware though - if you're not prepare for it Barry's style can be a little hard to get used to. I am a shameless squealing fangurl but am totally aware that he's not everyone's cuppa tea!)

Kathleen said...

I wish this book would be required reading for all in school. It's a deeply moving and effecting work that doesn't sensationalize or glamorize war and violence. I was moved to tears with this one when I thought of all of the millions who died during the war. My teenage son read it and found it moving as well. Glad you "enjoyed" it.

jessicabookworm said...

I thought this was a very powerful read, a book worthy of a re-read soon I think.

Bettina @ Liburuak said...

I read and reviewed this last year (http://liburuak.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/erich-maria-remarque-im-westen-nichts-neues-1929/), and absolutely loved it. It's a harrowing story but so amazingly well-told. I think if it weren't for Paul's narrative voice I probably wouldn't have made it through the novel because of its horrific events.
Thank you for this review, Ana, and bringing back the memories of reading it, because I don't think I could face a re-read. But I was so grateful I read it and I actually recommend it a lot.

On a side note, I feel like especially in these times when Europe appears to be starting to fall apart again, it's necessary to remind us why the European project came about in the first place, to help us find the way back to these roots.

Meghan said...

I read this in history class in high school and it was perfect in the way it humanized the experience and provided perspective on what we were learning at the time. I think it's time for a revisit, though - I remember very little about it except what I just said and that I found it very, very moving.

Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis said...

I agree with Kathleen that this should be required reading for all ion school - and in as many countries and as many languages as it is available.

I read this for the first time last year and it haunts me still. I think the passage with the French soldier is one of the finest (simple, eloquent, moving, heart-rending) I've ever read about war.

Amy said...

Wow! I have to admit I've always had an aversion to reading this but your review and these comments have completely changed my mind! Now I want to read it.

Aarti said...

This is one of the few books I actually managed to re-read and review for my ill-fated Flashback Challenge a couple of years ago :-)

I loved this book. And, as far as I know, in many schools it *is* required reading. It certainly was in mine. Beautiful book.

Stephanie said...

I don't remember whether I've read this novel, though I do remember the film adaptation. Probably not. This sounds like a book I'd remember, even 30+ years later.

This is a beautiful review. All war is senseless and tragic, in my mind, but there is something particularly brutally depressing about WW I. All that misdirected nationalism, and the irony of the rhetoric about "the war to end all wars" when WW I was a direct cause of WW II. The struggle to make meaning out of a global disaster caused mainly by imperialism. I have a friend who's a sociologist -- she says all wars are ultimately about imperialism, in one way or another. I suspect she's right.

I haven't heard of the Regeneration cycle. It sounds fascinating.

Stephanie said...

Sorry, I meant Regeneration Trilogy not Regeneration Cycle. I must've had Doctor Who on the brain. :-)

Jeane said...

Ah such a good book! You make me want to read it again. I have been for years hunting for a special edition to add to my library; it had actual photographs from that era that illustrated what was being told in the story. Excellent.

Anonymous said...

I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school and never forgot it. This is a wonderful review. If you haven't had a chance to read any poetry by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon,or Miklos Radnoti, they're worth checking out.

Love the blog!

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