All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

20 Books of Summer 2023: Book 2

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those classics that doesn’t seem quite worth reading because you think you already know what it’s about. It takes place in the trenches of World War I where Paul and other young Germans have been pushed into the war because “at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward’; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for.” (7) Like all books centered around WWI and the horrors of trench warfare, there are many bleak and violent scenes, but quiet moments and philosophizing help the book coalesce into a moving narrative.

Some time ago, I found an online debate about the best “anti-war” movie. I’d previously understood this term to apply to any movie with a “war is bad” theme, but now I think this concept is more subtle. For example, though Saving Private Ryan’s depiction of D-Day stands alone in its graphic brutality, the main thrust of the movie centers on an attainable goal. In their quest to save one man, there’s a sense that the protagonists are pursuing something noble. As Horvath says, “Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.”

In contrast, what makes All Quiet on the Western Front so devastating is that the characters’ suffering isn’t for anything. There’s little mention of the big-picture goals of the war because Paul and his peers aren’t true believers in the cause; they’re regular people who have been pushed into service. They can’t look forward more than days and weeks at a time, and there’s little to look forward to. While many WWI novels lament the loss of so many young lives in terms of their lost potential, All Quiet takes a grimmer angle: These boys haven’t just lost their future, but their past as well.

All the older men are linked up with their previous life. They have wives, children, occupations, and interests, they have a background which is so strong that the war cannot obliterate it. We young men of twenty, however, have only our parents, and some, perhaps, a girl—that is not much, for at our age the influence of parents is at its weakest and the girls have not yet got a hold over us. Besides this there was little else—some enthusiasm, a few hobbies, and our school. Beyond this our life did not extend. And of this nothing remains. . . . We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land. All the same, we are not often sad. (12)

Perhaps other novelists have done this, but the way Remarque describes Paul and his peers as simultaneously cut off from their future and past really moved me. Unlike in Saving Private Ryan where going home is the goal, it’s stated over and over here that Paul cannot look forward to home when he has been so profoundly altered by war. As Remarque says in an epigraph:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

Further on this point, after a particularly beautiful passage in which Paul muses on the poplar trees of his youth, he says:

And even if these scenes of our youth were given back to us we would hardly know what to do. The tender, secret influence that passed from them into us could not rise again. We might be amongst them and move in them; we might remember and love them and be stirred by the sight of them. But it would be like gazing at the photograph of a dead comrade; those are his features, it is his face, and the days we spent together take on a mournful life in the memory; but the man himself it is not. (66)

Drawing a parallel between the beloved sights of youth and a photo of a dead comrade is striking. This book has many passages of similarly depressing power. So much time is spent conveying that the characters have lost both their youth and potential, that I’m a little surprised this book is so often recommended in high school. I’m glad I read it as an adult, because I remember how I felt as a teen and this book would not have seemed as profound as it does now. If you read this book in your youth, re-reading it now would probably feel like a brand-new experience.

I rarely read much about authors or the reception of books at the time of their release, but in this case, I stumbled over an article that explained All Quiet was quickly banned (and burned) in Germany. It was useless as propaganda because it makes German soldiers look “weak,” and there’s too much questioning as to what the war is actually for. Several times, Paul dwells on the idea that the common soldiers on either side are interchangeable. They’re all in the same miserable situation. When guarding prisoners of war, Paul says:

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any noncommissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.

The only “flaw” in this book is the way it often repeats itself. You can see this a little in the first quote that I pulled. The bits before and after the “. . .” are from different paragraphs and make the same point via slightly different language. If this were done occasionally, it wouldn’t have bothered me, but so often I’d read a paragraph and think “Remarque has expressed an inexpressible thing so perfectly!” only to see something quite similar again in the next paragraph and think, “but he just said that.” This style helps Remarque emphasize important points and is perhaps more accurate to how a young narrator might speak, but something about this style takes me out of the story—it gives me a mental image of the author searching for the perfect phrase rather than an image of the characters living their lives. (It’s possible this style is more common in my edition, translated by A.W. Wheen, than in the original German text.)

Overall 4.8 (out of 5.0) It will be hard to read other wartime narratives after this. So many of them seem bent on having their characters find meaning, purpose, or a deeper truth about themselves/humanity through war and that all sounds shallow (and a little like propaganda) after a book so grim as this one. The chapter when Paul returns home on leave will stick with me a long time.

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