Told by a young German soldier, All Quiet on the Western Front dismantles the supposed glory and romance of war.
“We are in camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans, we have enough to eat and we’re well satisfied.”
So begins 19-year-old narrator Paul Bäumer. There are extra tobacco rations, he adds. There are letters from home and, later, a description of the comrades arranging their latrines in a circle in order to sit, talk, empty the bowels and play cards for “wonderfully, mindless hours.” But the reason for the bumper rations – for all the beans and beef – is that half the soldiers in Bäumer’s platoon never came back from the trenches that day.
Thus Bäumer recounts the First World War as a collection of heroic adventures and comic interludes – like a medieval knight’s tale, these are somewhat episodic and often thrilling. It’s an increasingly poignant series of events, however, as one-by-one his comrades are murdered by war.
“Young? None of us is more than twenty. But young? Young men? That was a long time ago. We are old now.”
For Bäumer / Remarque, war is a gallop towards death; a merciless quest which sees old men send young men to die in foreign fields. These aren’t romantic, quiet deaths, either: they are gory and violent and stomach churning. For that reason – and because of the way Remarque contrasts war with the innocence of youth and the joys of comradeship – All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful anti-war novel. And, while the author’s preface claims the book isn’t an accusation (perhaps it’s more an anthem for doomed youth, then), that message was enough to see it banned and later burned in Nazi Germany.
The book isn’t a memoir, though parts are inspired by Remarque’s own experiences (he was Bäumer’s age when called up for military service in WWI; the book was published in 1929). It is a work of fiction, though perhaps what remains most true about it is how it addresses themes such as futility, friendship, death, class, and youth pitted against age (as well as innocence Vs experience). It’s recognisably about human existence generally, and the pain of growing up / growing old. But it is most powerful as presented: the terror that Man is capable of unleashing on his own kind.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by Brian Murdoch. London: Vintage, 2005.
First published as Im Westen nichts Neues (“Nothing new on the Western Front”) in 1929.
Similar to: Goodbye to Berlin (Christopher Isherwood), Regeneration (Pat Barker)
Further reading: Chapter 7 of Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari, references and reflects on the themes of All Quiet on the Western Front. Of note: medieval epics, especially about wars, were always about or from the perspective of kings, emperors and generals – never the foot soldier. Furthermore, early literary works would not contain a journey of self discovery: characters at the end of the story have learned nothing new about themselves, and have not changed their world view. Finally – for those disturbed by the futility of war – Harari examines how humans find meaning in military conflict, and perhaps even see it as a necessary driver in biological and social evolution.
CREDITS & COPYRIGHT
Words: my own except where quoted.
Photo by Stijn Swinnen via Unsplash.