All Quiet On The Western Front Paperback – February 20, 2009
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In my opinion, the Nazis burned Remarque's books not because he changed his name to a non-German name, but because this book is filled with anti-war sentiment cloaked as it had to be in 1928 when this was first published. To have lived through war in the trenches as Remarque did, qualifies him to speak to the insanity of mass killing that is war.
Let us all read his pages and imbibe the message of the cruelty and senselessness of war. I feel as if I want to go out and obtain a copy of every book Remarque ever published. Let his experience be our teacher; let his message endure. Let every school-kid in the world read and study these pages, so they come to know what war is. Let the decision-makers of the world pore over every passage, and ask themselves whether they will send their children to war. Let Remarque's works guide their decision.
Truly a classic.
Remarque served in the German army during WWI and is able to elicit the type of imagery and feeling only someone as a witness and participant can conjure. The story is narrated by Paul Baumer, an 18 year old German, who enlists along with many of his other school mates. WWI marked a turning point, the advent of modern warfare driven by technological change, couple with armies comprised of general citizens and less of hired or mercenary fighting forces. Paul and his school mates immediately encounter this horror, different from the romanticized battles of yore that they learn about in school. Remarque doesn't choose to place the characters in specific battles, representing the reality of a large portion of the war on the Western Front. These battles were brutality and killing like the world had never seen, the bulk of it trench warfare, with sides progressed marked not by victory or defeat, but yards or feet advanced. Death is everywhere, soldiers fighting in trenches alongside dead bodies of their colleagues and human waste for days, sometimes weeks at a time. All of this is remarkably rendered throughout "AQOTWF" along with Paul's transformation from naive & willing enlistee to disillusioned and devastated participant.
It is not just the physical that Remarque captures so poetically, but the emotional trauma. Some of the most poignant scenes take place off the battlefield. Paul's leave where he returns to his village is my favorite part of the book. We see the demons of a returning soldier, too traumatized to share the reality of the front lines with his family while they realize the different person he's become as a result of war. Essentially, Paul's soul is lost in spite of his physical body being unaffected. They termed it "shellshock" at the time, something we now refer to as PTSD. There are so many gut wrenching scenes of Paul and his friends confronting the reality of war, death and destruction at a point in life when they should be thinking about their future.
If you haven't read "All Quiet on the Western Front", it certainly should merit your attention. Like me, if you've read it as a teen, it is worth revisiting as its impact with greater context and a life lived will make you appreciate this novel even more.
Top international reviews
Brian Murdoch, the translator, has given us in his Afterword an excellent starting point for discussing this book. I refer to it as a ‘book’ because to call it a novel suggests something less horrific in terms of subject matter than what we find in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Brian Murdoch affirms that the key structure of the book is the contrast between terror and death set against the irrepressible ‘spark of life’. There is a secondary thematic idea in the novel, namely the opposition between youth and age as shown in the references to Kantorek, the boys’ teacher and to other older people Paul Baumer meets when on leave. They regard the soldiers as heroes who are sure to win. We are also shown the contrast between experienced older soldiers and the younger raw recruits at the front line.
These thematic points bring the book into focus as a novel as opposed to a documentary or historical account. Nevertheless it contains features of documentary in that its realism is so vivid. This is due, of course, to the fact that Remarque drew on his own experiences in the trenches. The horrors he describes give the book a strong degree of polemicism or implied denunciation of war itself. But the book’s novelistic qualities are further based round its varied characters, their qualities, idiosyncrasies, and actions, as in any novel.
It is also, of course a tragic novel on several levels: all the main characters die, almost all of terrible wounds and their after effects. The tragic features spread from the battlefield to the families at home and to the sacrifices forced on the population by hunger and the futility of the war itself. It is reflected, too, in the degradation of human relations as shown in the soldiers’ visit to the brothel in the village, though this is presented partly in terms of comic adventure.
One scene in particular encapsulates the ideas of futility, life and death, heroism that arises from fear, and pity. This is the scene that shows the one scene of hand-to-hand fighting when Paul, in his terror of death stabs one of ‘the others’ (we are deliberately not told directly of his nationality) and then tries to save his life, while the man dies a slow and agonising death in spite of these efforts. The near anonymity of the ‘others’ who are seldom referred to as enemies or by nationality, is another implied idea to show that the futility of war is not restricted to one side or the other.
Overall, this book, while making gripping, if depressing reading, is, nevertheless, virtually a ‘must read’ if we are to understand and ultimately abandon war.
R Barton 19th August 2015
I will definitely be reading other books by Erich Maria Remarque, in fact I have downloaded a couple already.
Almost all of the content of this book can be applied to the war featured and to every one since.
As a young man it disturbed me deeply. As an old(er) one it breaks my heart and confirms deeply tge futility of war and my instict for pacifism.
It should be compulsory reading for all who aspire to lead us.
I thought the modern translation brought the text to life in a vivid and compelling manner. The short biography of Remarque at the end was also enlightening.
As an English reader, this is how the war looked 'from the other side' and I think that makes it more poignant. As the book progresses and the reader becomes increasingly involved with the characters in it, the knowledge that it was British troops inflicting misery on Paul and his friends that was equal to anything our own troops suffered is significant. There really were no winners.
EVERYBODY should read this book.
This novel is devoid of politics and the bigger picture is never revealed, even the enemy themselves are often referred to as 'the ones over there' . The novel instead focuses solely on the humanity and the solider giving a honest vivid account on the torrents of war.
Don't run away with the idea that his book is depressing. Certainty its moving and dark in places, but the overall writing is very matter of fact and to the point leaving you with images or scenes that you are unlikely to ever forget.
Failed education, breakdown of ideals
The preachers glorified the Fatherland, the romantic character of war. For them, duty to one's country should be the greatest thing. But, they concealed the real interests behind the war, the rulers, the war profiteers and their acolytes.
The first death in war shattered all belief that authority was a synonym for greater insight and more human wisdom. The recruits immediately felt that the army leaders considered them as beasts, training them as `circus-ponies'.
The romantic war turned into butchery: `if we were to give morphia to everyone, we would have to had tubs full.'
Universal comradeship and the ideal solution
In direct confrontations, the soldiers came to understand that the enemies were in fact brothers: `Comrade, I did not want to kill you. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction ... Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother.'
The ideal solution is to consider war `as a bullfight. The ministers and generals of the countries (in war), armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be more simple and just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.'
Promise not fulfilled
`How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when a culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood. I see how people are set against one another and foolishly, obediently slay one another. I see that the keenest of brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again!'
Strong scenes and metaphors
About war: `three enemy trenches with their garrison, all stiff as though stricken with apoplexy, with blue faces, dead.'
About war and peace: `We hear the muffled rumble of the front only as a distant thunder, bumblebees droning by quite drown it. Around us stretches the flowery meadow.'
About death: `These nails will continue to grow like fantastic cellar plants. They twist themselves into corkscrews and grow and with them the hair on the decaying skull, just like grass in good soil.'
Unforgettably, E. M. Remarque evoked in a highly emotional language the tragic fate of a lost generation. But also, it was `of no account'. The war machine continued to rumble all over the world.
I also highly recommend the hard-hitting and very insightful memoirs from the other side of the channel written by Robert Graves in `Goodbye to All That.'
These books stand in sharp contrast with `the ice cold hedonist attitude within plain Barbarism' (T. Mann) expressed in the texts of Ernst Jünger about the same war.
And, yet, basic human instincts remain, as is exemplified by Paul's various reactions to his killing of the French compositor, Gerard Duval-writing which will remain in my mind for some time.
Particularly poignant is the fact that Paul's horrible experiences at the front are not believed or recognised by family or friends at home when he is on leave. The civilian population is still gung-ho, perhaps an early example of the triumph of propaganda over reality. Shades of Blair's "weapons of mass destruction"?
This book preaches a powerful anti-war message, but is anyone listening? Today's politicians have no experience of the horrors of war and show little sign of having learned from the past. Surely no survivor of Ypres would have thought invading Iraq was worthwhile.
A must-read and an easy read.