“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 its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” begins with this epitaph, which summarizes the author’s intent in writing the novel. Remarque was born in 1898 to a lower-class family in Germany. While at University studying to be a teacher, he was drafted into the German army, where he fought, and was later wounded. He wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1927 based off his own experiences and those of his comrades, for the reasons stated in the epitaph. The novel was wildly popular, especially in the US, which made a movie adaptation in 1930. Later, the book was banned by the Nazis because of the anti-war sentiment, and Remarque escaped to the US.
The novel starts with the narrator Paul and his company coming back from the front line (where most of the fighting took place), and enjoying a good meal after days of hard fighting. The soldiers are excited because they get double rations because half the company has been killed or injured. Despite these casualties, after eating his fill, Paul states, “We are satisfied and at peace,” leaving anyone who, like me, has not experienced the horrors of war to wonder what could have caused the soldiers to be so emotionless about the deaths of so many comrades and friends.
Then, Remarque brings the reader up to the front lines, seeing the war through Paul’s eyes as he runs for cover from a shelling, endures poison gas attacks, uses a corpse as cover while getting attacked in a graveyard, and debates putting a mortally wounded 18-year-old recruit out of his misery, “Shouldn’t we just take a revolver and put an end to it?”
This novel is intended to make the reader uncomfortable. The descriptions of rat-infested trenches and gory wounds made me squirm (“we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces”), but the descriptions of psychological pain were more unpleasant. One example is when Paul and his comrades are forced to listen to the cries of wounded horses. Paul describes the sound of the screams penetrating through their ears “It is not men, they could not cry so terribly.” Another example of psychological pain is when Paul pulls out the pocketbook of a French soldier he has just killed to find the letters to the man’s wife and child. It is one of the few moments he shows grief in the book, but within a few hours he buries his emotions and turns back into the soldier he has had to become.
However, the novel is not completely filled with horror and destruction. There are many scenes of Paul and his comrades hanging out and joking around. The simple language used in these scenes contrasts Paul’s more poetic narration. These scenes of dialogue also serve to humanize soldiers who lived on a different continent a century ago. While reading the dialogue between these men, I was reminded that, for the most part, they were just three years older than me.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is interesting in part because it is written from the perspective of someone on the losing side of a major war. But the experiences described in the novel can be generalized to all sides. After Paul kills the French soldier, he realizes the similarity of their experiences, wondering, “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”
The title “All Quiet on the Western Front” is ironic. In the original German, it is, “Im Westen Nichts Neues”, which directly translates to, “In the West, Nothing New.” The army report for the day on which one of the main characters dies contains these words. In 1918 in France, death was nothing new.
I would recommend this novel for anyone who wants to learn more about the life of average soldiers during World War I. However, I would not recommend reading it if you are sensitive to gory descriptions, because there were quite a few of those. It was definitely an emotionally difficult read, but a worthwhile one.
Reviewed by Katie F. ’18