Told from the perspective of schoolboys inspired to serve in the First World War by their patriotic zeal, All Quiet on the Western Front provides a panoramic view of the quagmire the boys find themselves in. The randomness of life and death, the brutal pragmaticism of life at the front, the experiences that rob them of their humanity and will haunt them forever, and their inability to imagine a future for themselves are all powerfully imagined in this short evocative classic novel. Like that lost generation, the reader will be left wondering what was it all for?
Four German boys – Albert, Müller, Leer and Paul – have been fighting in the Great War for a while now. Though they are still only nineteen years old, they are hardened to the realities of the front. Not jittery like new recruits, they play cards with the sound of shells landing in the background. Life at the front has brought out their animal instincts, a base pragmaticism, and made civilian life and peacetime activities seem alien. Their own former selves and interests seem juvenile, superfluous, incredible.
We went down to the local recruiting office, still a class of twenty young men, and then we marched off en masse, full of ourselves, to get a shave at the barber’s – some of us for the first time – before we set foot on a parade-ground. We had no real plans for the future and only very few of us had any thoughts of careers or jobs that were firm enough to be meaningful in practical terms. On the other hand, our heads were full of nebulous ideas which cast an idealised, almost romantic glow over life and even the war for us.
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.
Almost half of their company have been killed. Rather than dwelling on that loss or their own chances of survival, the boys enjoy the brief surplus in food and cigarettes. A friend of theirs, Kimmerich, is right now in hospital. When they visit him they are conscious of not alerting Kimmerich to the fact that his leg has been amputated. Though he has no distinction in rank above the others, Paul has the mark of a future leader. It is Paul who bribes the orderly into giving Kimmerich some morphine, who stays with Kimmerich through his final agonising hours, who takes the responsibility of writing to Kimmerich’s mother.
The real leader they look up to is Stanislaus Katczinsky – Kat. Forty years old, Kat is shrewd and crafty with a nose for trouble and can always seem to get them put on the best duties or to scrounge some food or whatever else they need. On their next trip to the front, some men down the line from them take direct hits. The screaming of the men is not as bad as the screaming of the horses. The horses at least can be put out of their misery. Returning back at 3AM, they come under fire themselves and have to take cover in a recently made cemetery. The shell impacts have blown up the graves and unearthed the coffins and corpses within, making for a horrific scene. Then they detect gas and hurriedly put on their masks, choking on recycled air until the wind clears the area.
Unlike the older men who have wives, children, houses and careers to return to, the boys have nothing but the barest dreams of what they might do after the war. They have no skills and no education. They wonder at how they came to be here, volunteering into the war straight out of school. Soon they are told there is to be a new offensive. They march back to the front, passing rows of newly made coffins.
All at once everything seems to me to be pointless and desperate.
[…] We all agree that it is the same for everyone; not only for us here, but for everyone who is in the same boat, some to a greater, others to a lesser extent. It is the common fate of our generation.
Albert puts it into words. ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’
He is right. We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things anymore; we believe in the war.
All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest novels of all time, a personal favourite of mine and one I believe ought to be read by every generation. Like Picasso’s Guernica, beyond the style and substance of the book itself is the additional accomplishment of being burned by the Nazis for betraying the myth of the German frontline soldier. Author Erich Maria Remarque’s German citizenship was revoked and he spent the rest of his life mostly in America and Switzerland. Though its title was famously mistranslated (‘Nothing New on the Western Front’ would be a more literal translation), All Quiet on the Western Front has attained an aura of its own that overrides any misconception it may give.
The themes and complex emotions exposed in this short, simply-told novel transcend wars and periods and is why it ought to be read and reread by everyone. By focusing the story on the journey of these soldiers – so young they are barely men – we see the lost innocence of a lost generation. The dilemma made famous by Søren Kierkegaard, of having to live your life looking forwards while being unable to explain it without looking backwards, is common to both real and fictional people but feels much more pronounced in this novel. How they came to be in the situation they find themselves in seems like a mystery they will spend the rest of their lives trying to understand. Their patriotic zeal was tapped, used and abused; leaving them disillusioned, melancholy and betrayed but not without some responsibility on themselves. There is also a contrast, a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect, in the novel where the boys struggle to make sense of their lives and war yet the teachers, instructors and civilians they encounter are completely ignorant of the realities of the war yet speak with certainty of what they think it is like and what they believe ought to be done.
But as far as we are concerned, that is the very root of their moral bankruptcy.
[…] While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying; while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater.
[…] But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.
The novel has an intensity throughout, it takes the reader deep into each emotional aspect of the story the author wishes to show us and it feels very real. Remarque himself served in WWI, he fought at Passchendaele and was wounded. As well as the death of Kimmerich and the time they take cover in a cemetery mentioned above, there is a heartbreaking encounter with a Russian POW and the conflicting emotions at play when the soldiers get home leave, where much of what they feel is unbearable yet left unspoken. The writing through all of this is terrific.
‘Was it very bad out there, Paul?’
Mother, what kind of an answer can I give you? You won’t understand and never will. And I don’t want you to. Was it bad you ask – you, Mother. I shake my head and say, ‘No, Mother, not really. After all, there are lots of us together, and that means that it isn’t so bad.’
At the same time, while the novel feels very evocative and is inspired by real events and experiences, its realism is a mirage created by the author. The novel is built around Paul as a central character as he experiences many aspects of the war in a short amount of time – time in the frontline trenches and well behind, time in hospital, encounters with enemy soldiers in combat and as prisoners, time on home leave and back in training. Each set piece explores and addresses certain ideas and emotions. The reader is given a somewhat panoramic view of a certain stage of the war for the reader’s benefit but not one any real soldier would have experienced entirely.
It is impossible to grasp the fact that there are human faces above these torn bodies, faces in which life goes on from day to day. And on top of it all, this is just one single military hospital, just one – there are hundreds of thousands of them in Germany, hundreds of thousands of them in France, hundreds of thousands of them in Russia. How pointless all human thoughts, words and deeds must be, if things like this are possible! Everything must have been fraudulent and pointless if thousands of years of civilisation weren’t even able to prevent this river of blood, couldn’t stop these torture chambers existing in their hundreds of thousands. Only a military hospital can really show you what war is.
The Vintage Classics edition I read includes an Afterword by Brian Murdoch, then a Professor of German at Stirling University. Murdoch shares some thoughts on the novels hidden complexity. Among them, he points out the novel’s avoidance of a political dimension, the soldier’s task of transitioning from the individual to the collective and back, and the unmasking of myths of heroism and the enemy soldier.
After reading this novel again, I watched the 1930 film for the first time. I think it is best to treat film and literature as separate storytelling genres but I struggled to judge the film adaptation in isolation here. The film is also considered a classic and is pretty true to the novel but rearranges the plot so that it follows chronologically rather than staring in the middle and telling the past in flashback. Some of the acting may seem sub-par, some of dialogue a little unnatural, but this is viewing it with modern eyes. The battle scenes, however, are superb, even by modern standards. Overall, it is a excellent film and worth seeing but does not quite deliver the complexity, nuance or emotional impact of the novel. I didn’t watch he 1979 remake, maybe next time.
It is highly unlikely (though not impossible) that there will be another war in Europe to match the scale of the two World Wars and other epic slaughters of previous centuries. Though not reversible, the spread of democracy and mutual economic interests have the effect of diminishing the probability of another such disaster. Yet, I still maintain that All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that deserves to be read widely and to endure into the future. Concise and powerful, it provokes important questions that, like Paul with his mother, it leaves unanswered in a telling silence. What is patriotism? What is bravery? What is the point of such ceaseless slaughter? What compels people to die for other people and ideals that are indifferent to their suffering and would never offer the same sacrifice in return?