Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel is one of the definitive 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 blood spilling of the war, the terrible conditions the soldiers endured at the front line and at hospital beds, and the psychological effect of becoming a vehicle to kill in the country’s leaders belief that none of them buy into. They have to unlearn what they learn in school to become a better human being and instead become indifferent for the killing field. The title is derived from those tense moments when the young men are braced for action and all they get from the front line was an eerie silence.
We had ten weeks of basic training, and that changed us more radically than ten years at school. We learnt that a polished tunic button is more important than a set of philosophy books. We came to realise – first with astonishment, then bitterness, and finally with indifference – that intellect apparently wasn’t the most important thing, it was the kit-brush; not ideas, but the system; not freedom, but drill. We had joined up with enthusiasm and with good will; but they did everything to knock that out of us. – page 15 – 16
I picked up All Quiet on the Western Front because of the praise for the book without knowing coincidentally it could be read in conjunction with the Remembrance day in November and the German Literature month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. I am of course late to the party again, not very keen on reading a book about war initially but I thoroughly glad that I finished this book!
Despite being a horrifying novel about how a generation of boys were destroyed by the war, it is a novel that one could easily fall in love with. Paul Bäumer’s narrative voice is powerful, persuasive, humorous, compassionate, in his many ways convincing the readers that this war is wrong. What won me over were all those little moments of triumph of scoring one up against a notorious officer, Himmelstoss and the stolen moments when Paul and his friends experienced a respite from all those fighting. It is in those moments that we forgot this group of friends were soldiers, instead they were merely human, hoping to survive, at times hoping that they could be maimed so that they could go home to their family.
There are thousands of profound passages from the book, here are some of my favourites….
This habit of getting used to things is the reason that we seem to forget so quickly. The day before yesterday we were still under fire, today we are fooling about, seeing what we can scrounge around here, tomorrow we’ll be back in the trenches. In fact we don’t really forget anything. All the time we are out here the days at the front sink into us like stones the moment they are over, because they are too much for us to think about right away. If we even tried, they would kill us. Because one thing has become clear to me: you can cope with all the horror as long as you simply duck thinking about it – but it will kill you if you try to come to terms with it. – page 97
“It’s funny when you think about it,’ continues Kropp. ‘We’re out here defending out homeland. And yet the French are there defending their homeland as well. Which of us is right?’
‘Maybe both,’ I say, thought I don’t believe it.
‘Well then,’ says Albert, and I can see that he is trying to drive me into a corner, ‘Our teachers and preachers and newspapers all tell us that we are the only ones with right on our side, and let’s hope it’s true – but the French teachers and preachers and newspapers all insist that they are the only ones in the right. How does that figure?’
‘I don’t know,’ I reply, ‘but at any rate there is a war and every month more countries want to take part.’ – page 140
I am also moved by 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. The most heart wrenching of all and here’s I’m introducing a spoiler, is where Paul carried his friend Kat on his back and refuse to acknowledge that Kat is dead….
The ending of the book with the death of Private Stanislaus Katczinsky and Paul’s wrapped up the novel with a feeling of void and senseless purpose in war. There is abundance of WWI stories from the victims but perhaps this is the only book I know who gave us the voice of equally slaughtered soldiers from the perpetrator side. If there is one thing that I take away from the book is that it evangelises peace and the pointless venture of arms and wars. Erich Remarque is ahead of his time and it is of no surprise that his book was one of those that was burned in front of the Humboldt University, Bebelplatz in May 10, 1933. The Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler burned around 20,000 books, including works by Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and many other authors.
We will always remember the Paul Bäumer, the Stanislaus Katczinsky, Albert Knopp, Leer, Müller, Tjaden of the WWI generations…
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? – page 180
It took me ages to write this review as always in a case of a very good book, I’m wondering how best to write a review that do the book justice. Vintage classic herald this book as “The greatest novel about the first world war”. It is a book that should be read by every generation, because the world as a whole hasn’t learnt anything constructive from our past mistakes. That’s why this book is still ever so relevant.
Have you read this? What other WW1 books have you read? I have the Regeneration Trilogy on my shelf. Yes, all three of them. I’ll have to read it soon!
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage Classic 2005, originally published in 1929 ; Length: 207 pages; Setting: Germany. Source: Westminster Library copy. Finished reading at: 21st November 2012. This book come with a reading guide.
Other rave views:
Ana@things mean a lot: 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.
Vulpes Libris: This is not an easy read – there are scenes that will make you put it down to gather yourself, some images that are too strong to truly contemplate for long. But if it is worth remembering those that were lost, it is worth reading this book to have some idea, however vague, of what they suffered
Shelf Love: This is a brilliant book, very personal. I wondered as I read it whether Remarque had read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or whether it was just a common set of observations between soldiers: the disbelief, for instance, that anyone could be trying to kill me — me! whom everyone loves! I know many people read this book in school, but if you haven’t, as I hadn’t, it’s well worth the time, and unfortunately, it still has a lot to say to us today.
About the Writer:
Erich Paul Remarque was born on 22 June 1898 into a working class family in the German city of Osnabrück to Peter Franz Remark (b. 14 June 1867, Kaiserswerth) and Anna Maria (née Stallknecht; born 21 November 1871, Katernberg).
During World War I, Remarque was conscripted into the army at the age of 18. On 12 June 1917, he was transferred to the Western Front, 2nd Company, Reserves, Field Depot of the 2nd Guards Reserve Division at Hem-Lenglet. On 26 June, he was posted to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment, 2nd Company, Engineer Platoon Bethe, and was stationed between Torhout and Houthulst. On 31 July, he was wounded by shrapnel in the left leg, right arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.
After the war he continued his teacher training and worked from 1 August 1919 as a primary school teacher in Lohne, at that time in the county of Lingen, now in the county of Bentheim. From May 1920 he worked in Klein Berßen in the former County of Hümmling, now Emsland, and from August 1920 in Nahne, which has been part Osnabruck since 1972. With his application for leave of absence from teaching this period ended on 20 November 1920.
His first marriage was to the actress Ilse Jutta Zambona in 1925. Their marriage was stormy and unfaithful on both sides. Remarque and Zambone divorced in 1930, but fled together to his home in Porto Ronco, Switzerland in 1933 when the Nazis took over Germany; in May 1933, his novel All Quiet on the Western Front was burned in one of the first of the Nazi book burnings and it became clear that neither Remarque nor Zambona could return to Germany.
During the 1930s, Remarque had relationships with Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr and then with Marlene Dietrich. The love affair with Dietrich began in September 1937 when they met on the Lido while in Venice for the Film Festival and continued through at least 1940, maintained mostly by way of letters, cables, and telephone calls. A selection of their letters were published in 2003 in the book “Sag Mir, Dass Du Mich Liebst”(“Tell Me That You Love Me”) and then in the 2011 play Puma.
In 1938, Remarque and his ex-wife Zambone remarried each other in Switzerland as a protection to prevent her being forced to return to Germany and then they immigrated to the United States in 1939 where they both became naturalized citizens in 1947. They divorced again on May 20, 1957, this time for good.
Remarque married actress Paulette Goddard in 1958 and they remained married until his death in Locarno on 25 September 1970, aged 72.