Erich Maria Remarque was born in 1898 and died in 1970, a veteran of the First World War and one of the world's greatest war authors. Although he has written many other novels, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is his best known novel. Seeing active service during the First World War, he fled the country during the Second, his works banned and himself publicly decried as a Jew and liar until his citizenship was revoked and he fled to the United States. His sister was executed for "undermining morale". I chose the synopsis below from Amazon rather than Goodreads, because I severely disagreed with the one there.
In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their schoolmaster to troop off to the 'glorious war'. With the fire and patriotism of youth they sign up. What follows is the moving story of a young 'unknown soldier' experiencing the horror and disillusionment of life in the trenches.
Remarque's novel was a massive success upon its publication because it hit close to the hearts of an entire generation of men who grew up fighting. The terrible truth told in the novel is not that war is pointless or that those making the decisions are wrong, but that what a soldier experiences changes him forever and in many cases destroyed them despite surviving the bombs and bullets. When the novel's protagonist, Paul Bäumer, returns home on leave from the front, the reader is confronted with this reality.
'A terrible feeling of foreignness suddenly rises up in me. I cannot find my way back, I am shut out though I entreat earnestly and put forth all my strength.' p.81Remarque's writing brings Paul's feelings of isolation and hopelessness right to the forefront of the novel. He is lost and alone when he is not at the Front fighting with his comrades. The life we as a reader think of as normal, is as foreign to him as his reality is to us and that is what war does to a soldier. It makes a soldier a foreigner in his own life. These instances in the novel where these feelings are brought close to the reader are heart-breaking in their honesty.
'Albert expresses it: 'The War has ruined us for everything." He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.' p.42The reason I chose the above passage, is because it reveals another very important aspect of the novel. Although Paul is talking about himself and his experiences here, he says 'we'. The camaraderie between the soldiers is palpable, the brotherhood that is created by the experience of death and disease is the strongest foundation any of the characters have. This makes the deaths in the novel traumatic not only for the other characters but also for the reader because the familiar faces seem to hold the violence of the novel at bay. The violence is an aspect of the novel I didn't know how to prepare for. Some parts of the fighting are glossed over, only to be described in detail later. Every part of the warfare is described, but so are the consequences. There is nothing glorified about fighting when two pages later shattered joints and brain matter are spread across the floor.
What I wasn't expecting while reading the novel was the similarity in description between Remarque's novel and Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est. The soldiers trudging along, blind and dumb to their surroundings, the shouts of 'Gas!' and the horror of a comrade dying in front of you both feature in the novel and poem. Although they fought at different sides, against each other even, the German Remarque and the British Owen use the same words, the same intensity to bring their points across. What this means to me is that an experience such as the First World War does level all the differences between people. Remarque describes this in the novel as well, the strange fact that there is no conflict between the soldiers and yet they kill each other and die together at a word and instantly stopped on Armistice Day.
I give this novel...
There is so much more to write about this novel and I most definitely will, but for now I will leave it at this. All Quiet on the Western Front has definitely been the most challenging read so far and has brought me close to tears. But I think it is important to confront yourself with the reality of War, especially since soldiers are still fighting all around the world, being affected in a similar way. Understanding their experience will go a long way in forming an informed opinion on war.
Next week, Henri Barbusse's Under Fire: The Story of a Squad.