In which I review All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal 1929 novel about a German soldier scarred by his experiences in World War I.
What it’s about: France/Germany, 1914-1918. Nineteen year-old Paul Bäumer volunteers for the German army with his friends Kropp, Müller and Leer following encouragement from their old teacher Kantorek. The four become relief troops at the front line, led by Katczinsky, an older officer who becomes a mentor and friend. After a disastrous day of fighting in which over half of their 150-strong company are killed, the survivors are allowed a bigger portion of food and tobacco. They visit their friend Kemmerich, who dies in hospital after having his leg amputated, and Müller keeps his long-coveted flying boots. Bäumer is nearly killed during shellfire, taking shelter in a cemetery where the graves are blown up. Bäumer and Katczinsky catch and roast a goose in the middle of the night, sharing the meal with their team. They spend several days inside a bomb shelter during a violent offensive, then finally attack enemy lines, making slight gains and taking corned beef and Cognac from the French side. They spend two days looking for a wounded soldier, whom they can hear but not see, but without success. With their regiment reduced to 32 men, they are sent away from the front to recover, and Bäumer and the others have a liaison with some French women. Bäumer is given two weeks leave and returns to his home village, where his mother is unwell. He struggles and fails to tell his family about the fighting, and feels disconnected with his old life. He visits Kemmerich’s mother, and tries to comfort her with a lie about Kemmerich dying instantly and painlessly. He goes to a training camp, where he guards Russian prisoners-of-war, whom he tries to treat kindly. He rejoins his regiment, and is almost killed during a patrol of enemy lines, taking shelter in a bomb crater with the body of a dead French soldier. Later, they are sent to guard a deserted village, and make a feast with the food they find in the farmhouses. Bäumer and Kropp are wounded in shrapnel fire and sent away by train. When Kropp becomes ill, Bäumer fakes illness so they can be offloaded and sent to a hospital together. Kropp’s leg is amputated in hospital, while Bäumer recovers and is sent back to the front. The company endures several months of prolonged fighting, growing ill from dysentery and becoming depressed as their food supplies run out. Müller and then Katczinsky are killed. By the autumn of 1918, Bäumer is the sole survivor of his class. With news of an armistice gathering force, he determines to go on living and confront his empty future without fear. The narrative shifts into third-person, reporting that Bäumer died in October 1918, on a day when “there was nothing new to report on the western front“. When found, “his face wore an expression that was so composed that it looked as if he were almost happy that it had turned out that way“.
Why it’s a classic: The first and possibly greatest anti-war novel of the 20th century, All Quiet on the Western Front sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print, and was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1930. The first English translator of the novel, Arthur Wesley Wheen, was responsible for the title All Quiet on the Western Front, a slight derivation from the original German title which translates literally as “Nothing New in the West”. In his 1993 translation, Brian Murdoch kept All Quiet on the Western Front, explaining “Although it does not match the German exactly, Wheen’s title has justly become part of the English language and is retained here with gratitude.”
In today’s anti-establishment age, in which governments are criticised for going to war and pacifism is fashionable, it’s difficult to imagine the explosive effect that All Quiet on the Western Front must have had on its audience, still reeling from the devastating losses of the Great War but clinging steadfastly to a narrative of heroism and sacrifice. “This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession“, Remarque writes in his preface, which one suspects was put in by an over-cautious editor, eager not to alienate readers. It’s a total fudge, of course – within the first ten pages, the battle-scarred narrator Bäumer accuses his teachers and leaders of “moral bankruptcy” for pushing him and his generation into war. “In our minds, the idea of authority – which is what they represented – implied deeper insights and a more humane wisdom,” he writes. “But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction.” Bäumer is the spokesman for a lost generation of youth, forced into a new and brutal acquaintance with the world: “All at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone.”
While Remarque doesn’t expressly get into the politics behind the war, his contempt for government and authority is clear: the war-mongering Kaiser, whose empire-building was one of the main drivers towards Germany going to war, has a brief cameo in the book, making an underwhelming appearance at a military inspection. This critique of war, coming from a member of the “losing side”, was enthusiastically welcomed by international readers: here at last was an admission from a German soldier of the pointlessness of his country’s military strategy. Unsurprisingly, Remarque’s works were banned by the Nazis for being unpatriotic. Remarque was publicly denounced by Hitler and had his German citizenship revoked, before fleeing to Switzerland and later to America (where he became something of a celebrity, and had a relationship with Marlene Dietrich). His sister Elfriede wasn’t so lucky, being put on trial and executed by the Nazis in 1943, for “undermining morale” but mostly for being the brother of a banned writer. Remarque’s novel is widely regarded as giving birth to a new literary genre: the “anti-war” war novel, with graphical and unsentimental descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare and the physical and mental suffering of soldiers on the front line. Nearly every other great war novel of the 20th century, from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, can trace their DNA back to Remarque. His taut visceral prose and fearless ability to look straight into the heart of darkness has cast a very long shadow over world literature, and the way that we talk and write about war.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge funeral wreath of blood red poppies. It’s difficult to want to applaud a book that’s so disturbing and features so many gory scenes of death and mutilation, but there’s really no other fitting response. This is an extraordinary book, a magnificently crafted work of literature that earns its many declamatory statements about the wrongness of the world because it is so powerfully and persuasively written. Unlike Remarque’s first readers, I’ve had considerable exposure to books, documentaries and films about World War I, and have more of a sense-memory of life in the trenches than civilians in the 1920s would have had. Despite everything I’ve read and seen, Remarque’s prose walloped me between the eyes like an anvil. As a writer, he has a near-faultless grasp of language and storytelling technique: as Bäumer, he employs the journalistic first-person I, writing in the present tense to give each scene a jolting sense of immediacy. His language is clean and stripped-down, with short punchy sentences with imagery that feels grounded in lived experience but operate as poetry does, by lifting the mundane and the everyday into a heightened emotional state. At other points, the banality and ugliness of his observations makes its own poetry: “You can get used to anything,” Bäumer tells us, “even being in the trenches“. Remarque is also a master of narrative structure: he knows when to keep you with Bäumer in a single scene, and when to cut away into a flashback from his past, and even when to stop the action to ruminate on his wasted generation. (It’s unsurprising that the novel made such a successful film, since it reads so much like a screenplay).
Ultimately, though, it’s the clarity of his psychological insights, so forcefully and unsentimentally expressed, that gives Remarque’s writing its haunting power. I know of few other books that can so convincingly express a state of extreme emotional distress while remaining its intellectual poise and coherence. Decades before clinicians started diagnosing fight-or-flight-response, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, survivor’s guilt and repressed memories, Remarque accurately described the physiological and psychological response to battle: “The moment we hear the whistle of the first shells, or when the air is torn by artillery fire, a tense expectancy suddenly gets into our veins, our hands and our eyes, a readiness, a heightened wakefulness, a strange suppleness of the senses. All at once the body is completely ready.” He’s also able to explain the numbness and emotional repression that’s an essential part of surviving trauma: “[Y]ou 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“, and the attendant fear that “everything that is sinking into us like a stone now, while we are in the war, will rise up again when the war is over, and that’s when the real life-and-death struggle will start.”
Amid all the horror, there are moments of staggering beauty, which feel all the more hard-earned for co-existing within so much horror. “The grasses are waving, cabbage whites are fluttering about, swaying on the warm breezes of late summer, while we read our letters and newspapers, and smoke; we take our caps off and put them on the ground beside us, the wind plays with our hair and it plays with our words and with our thoughts.” And despite a rather perfunctory scene where Bäumer and his friends hook up with some French women, the novel’s real love story is between Bäumer and Katczinsky, as they roast a goose over an open fire: “We don’t talk much, but we have a greater and more gentle consideration for each other than I should think even lovers do….What do I know about him? Before the war we wouldn’t have had a single thought in common – and now here we are… aware of our existence and so close to each other that we can’t even talk about it.” It’s a remarkable moment, rendered gently and honestly, and without a trace of the normal macho machismo we expect from soldiers. Katczinsky’s death, though reported briefly and soberly, is truly heartbreaking, as is Bäumer’s return to the civilian world, where he realises how profoundly alienated he is from his old life: “Suddenly a terrible feeling of isolation wells up inside me. I can’t get back, I’m locked out; however much I might plead, however much I try, nothing moves, and I sit there as wretched as a condemned man and the past turns away from me.”
Throughout my reading of All Quiet on the Western Front, which I finished in a single day, I held onto a sliver of hope that resounded through all the horror and tragedy. “But he survived”, I said to myself, thinking of Bäumer rather than Remarque. “He bore witness. He found a way to make an unimaginable situation understood. In the end, art can triumph death.” Remarque sensed this hope in his readers, I think, and cut it off at the knees, ending with the brilliantly bloodless final paragraph, in which an unnamed third-person narrator reports Bäumer’s death. In a moment, the intimate relationship we’ve established with Bäumer over 200 pages is gone, never to be recovered. It’s a skilful if somewhat cruel upending of our expectations as readers, and a stunningly effective way to demonstrate the fragility of human life, and the devastation of loss.
Reading this novel nearly 100 years after its initial publication, I’m struck by how fresh and visceral it feels, though the events it describes are so well-known. “How pointless all human thoughts, words and deeds must be, if things like this are possible!”, Bäumer says, just a few pages before we learn of his death. “Everything must have been fraudulent and pointless if thousands of years of civilization weren’t even able to prevent this river of blood, couldn’t stop these torture chambers existing in their hundreds of thousands.” How even more painful it is to realise that the lessons learned from the Great War weren’t followed, and that another even uglier war followed it, demonstrating even more horrific methods for ending human life.
Quotable Quote: “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 any more; we believe in the war.”