All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (book review)

With the centenary of the start of the First World War in mind, the members of my book group have been reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque, born in Germany in 1898, drew on some of his own experiences in WW1 to write this incredibly powerful and unforgettable novel, first published in 1929. It’s also a great choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which will be running throughout November, but I’ve posted this review today in time for this week’s book group discussion.

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All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated by Paul Bäumer, an eighteen-year-old German boy who – along with several of his schoolmates – is marched down to the local recruiting office by his schoolteacher to enlist in the war. These young boys are swept up by the ideology and beliefs of their teacher and other authority figures around them, people who profess to be acting in the best interests of their country by forcing the boys to support the war effort. But as the brutal reality of war hits home, Bäumer and his friends realise they have been sold out and abandoned by their elders’ generation; in effect, a ‘moral bankruptcy’ has taken place:

They were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilized behaviour and progress – into the future. […] Our first experience of heavy artillery fire showed us our mistake, and the view of life that their teaching had given us fell to pieces under that bombardment.

[…]

But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, 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 – and we had to come to terms with it alone as well. (pgs. 8-9, Vintage Books)

As the novel moves forward, we follow Bäumer and his unit as they try to survive both the physical and mental effects of the war. There is a strong sense that Bäumer represents a universal soldier; he could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the next few seconds might bring.

All Quiet is particularly strong on both the physical and psychological horrors of war. There are several distressing (but necessary) scenes that convey the injuries, fatigue, fear and hallucinations these soldier experiences in the fields and trenches. As we join this scene, Bäumer and his comrades have been trapped for days in a dugout on the front, their nerves shredded as a result of the confinement:

Another night. The tension has worn us out. It is a deadly tension that feels as if a jagged knife blade is being scraped along the spine. Our legs won’t function, our hands are trembling and our bodies are like thin membranes stretched over barely repressed madness, holding in what would otherwise be an unrestrained outburst of endless screams. We have no flesh, no muscles now, we cannot even look at one another for fear of seeing the unimaginable. And so we press our lips together tightly – it has to stop, it has to stop – perhaps we’ll get through it all. (pg. 77)

And once they escape, more horror and conflict awaits. In order to survive and maintain some semblance of sanity, Bäumer and his comrades are forced to adopt the mindset that they are fighting Death itself. Dwelling on the human aspects of conflict would only lead to a breakdown, and the soldiers know they cannot succumb to these thoughts if they are to survive. Cut adrift from the rest of the world, their actions are automatic; they have become automatons fighting a faceless enemy. If they try to come to terms with the horror, they fear it will kill them:

We are not hurling our grenades against human beings – what do we now about all that in the heat of the moment? – the hands and the helmets that are after us belong to Death himself… (pg. 79) 

The brown earth, the torn and mangled brown earth, shimmering greasily under the sun’s rays, becomes a backdrop for our dulled and ever-moving automatic actions, our harsh breathing is the rasping of the clockwork, our lips are dry and our heads feel worse than  after a night’s hard drinking – and so we stumble onwards, while into our bullet-ridden, shot-through souls the image of the brown earth insinuates itself painfully, the brown earth with the greasy sun and the dead or twitching soldiers, who lie there as if that were perfectly normal, and who grab at our legs and scream as we try to jump over them. (pg. 80)

Somewhat inevitably, Bäumer is deeply affected by the horror and senselessness of it all (even though he tries to suppress these feelings at the front), and this is painfully apparent when he returns home for a brief spell of leave. When Bäumer arrives home unannounced, his sister calls for their mother and he is overcome with emotion:

I lean against the wall and grip my helmet and my rifle. I grip them as hard as I can, but I can’t move another step, the staircase blurs before my eyes. I thump my rifle-butt against my foot and grit my teeth in anger, but I am powerless against that one word that my sister has just spoken, nothing has any power against it. I try with all my might to force myself to laugh and to speak, but I can’t manage a single word, and so I stand there on the stairs, wretched and helpless, horribly paralysed and I can’t help it, and tears and more tears are running down my face. (pg. 109)

This young man realises that he has become brittle and damaged by the war, and as he struggles to come to terms with his feelings, it’s as if a great chasm has opened up between the memories of his former life and his current perception of the world. Bäumer finds it so difficult to connect with his family and the people back home that he prefers to be alone, and he wonders if he will ever be able to build a life for himself after the war. Other (older) soldiers have wives and children to return to, but Bäumer is part of the lost generation, the boys who went straight from school to war, those with no other experience of adult life to cling to.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a deeply affecting book, almost unbearably so at times for all the reasons I have already mentioned. We gain an insight into a war characterised by terror, both the fear of waiting for conflict and the shock of coming face-to-face with it. Alongside this portrayal, the novel also captures the camaraderie between soldiers in moments of battle and quieter times. We follow Bäumer as he carries an injured soldier (his closest friend in the unit) to safety. We see the soldiers cooking a feast while under fire as they stand guard over a supply station in an evacuated village. The taunting of their training commander, the vindictive Himmelstoss (now posted out to the conflict), provides a few moments of light relief.

Above all else though, we are left with a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. As I was reading All Quiet, I couldn’t help but mark several sections of the text, and I ended up with far too many quotes to include here. But I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage that gets to the essence of this book for me. I wish I had read this novel many years ago; I’m sure I’ll read it again.

I am young, I am twenty years of age; but I know nothing of life except despair, death, fear, and the combination of completely mindless superficiality with an abyss of suffering. I see people being driven against one another, and silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another. I see the best brains in the world inventing weapons and words to make the whole process that much more sophisticated and long-lasting. And watching this with me are all my contemporaries, here and on the other side, all over the world – my whole generation is experiencing this with me. What would our fathers do if one day we rose up and confronted them, and called them to account? What do they expect from us when a time comes in which there is no more war? For years our occupation has been killing – that was the first experience we had. Our knowledge is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what can possibly become of us? (pg. 180)

All Quiet on the Western Front (tr. by Brian Murdoch) is published in the UK by Vintage Books . Source: personal copy.

59 thoughts on “All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (book review)

  1. Brian Joseph

    I have wanted to read this for decades.

    With the centenary of the start of the war now seems the perfect time.

    I have seen several of the film versions and they were so very powerful. In addition, the story seems to have influenced so much of what has come after.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a great time to read it, Brian, especially given the centenary of the start of the Great War (and November’s focus on German Lit). I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading All Quiet, but I’m so glad I did, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I must take a look at the film versions as I haven’t seen either one. The 1930 version looks like the one to go for.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Isn’t it, Susan? That quote just stopped me in my tracks as it seemed to capture the essence of the book: the senselessness of it all; the horror, fear and despair; the idea that a whole generation had been sold down the river by their elders and betters; what hope remains? A heartbreaking, vital read.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It really has stood the test of time, Seamus, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. Such a deeply affecting book. If you fancy a reread, now’s a good time to do it (and you could join German Lit Month).

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Reminds me of some of the content of letters in Testament of Youth received by Vera Brittain from her fiance also during WW1, how pride and loyalty disintegrates into despondency, where death is almost a relief and survival a punishment, to have to live with the horrors that can’t be removed from their minds. Only it was she who survived and had to live with those memories and that lost youth of those dearest to her.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I must look out for Testament of Youth as it sounds as if it would make an excellent companion piece to All Quiet. I can’t even begin to imagine what life after the war must have been like for these soldiers as they tried to come to terms with the horrors of the battlefield.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. I really should have read All Quiet before now, but I’m so glad my book group picked it this month. November would be a good time for a reread as it would fit with German Lit Month :)

      Reply
  3. naomifrisby

    Brilliant review, Jacqui. I haven’t read this and now I’m not sure I can. I finished Catherine Hall’s latest novel ‘The Repercussions’ on Sunday which deals with both WW1 and Afghanistan and it was devastating. I know it’s pathetic as I’m only reading about it but I think I’ve read too many war novels this year. The horror of things humans do to each other.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. Oh, I can totally relate to that feeling; you have to pick the right time to read a book like this. Best leave it for a few months and try it when you’re in the right frame of mind. It’s almost unbearably affecting at times, an unflinching portrayal of the horror, emotional turmoil and the sheer futility of it all.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s an incredible book, Alice. It touches on many aspects of the Great War, not just life on the battlefield, but the difficulty of returning to a ‘normal’ existence and the emptiness of everything.

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    One of my favourite books about the First World War – and essential reading, I believe, for English-speaking audiences since they don’t often get to hear the point of view of the ‘other side’.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a novel that seems to resonate with so many people and I’m really looking forward to hearing the thoughts of my book group later this week. I agree, it feels like an essential read, and there’s a sense of universality about Bäumer’s story; he could have been any one of the young recruits sent to the front. One of the things that struck me was the feeling that Bäumer’s generation had been sold down the river, forced to join up by their elders and figures of authority (many of whom escaped the recruitment drive themselves). Such a heartbreaking portrayal on every level.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    I tried this book during my early teens and got nowhere with it. You make a very good case for me to give it another try, lo these coughsplutterahemcoughcough years later. Many thanks for an excellent and eloquent piece.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Ah thanks, John, very kind. I’m not sure how I would have responded to All Quiet had I picked it up in my teens (or my twenties for that matter), but I’m very glad to have finally read it. It’s well worth giving it another try if you feel the time might be right; there are very few books I’d describe as must-reads, but I think this is one of them…

      Reply
  6. My Book Strings

    I read this book early this summer, finally, and was also deeply affected by it. The horror of it all is told with such seeming detachment. I also fully agree with your point about the universality. Baeumer could indeed be any soldier. Remarque has written a book about the years after the war, “The Long Road Back,” which I want to read fairly soon.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a timely read I think. The universality idea is very powerful, isn’t it? It’s almost as though Bäumer’s experiences can be expanded to cover any young recruit, not just the Germans, but any soldier sent to war. And it highlights the waste of life, the senselessness of it all from each and every side. I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with ‘The Long Road Back’ as I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for these soldiers to decompress and rebuild after their experiences in the war.

      Reply
  7. Guy Savage

    I read this a few years ago and thought it was incredibly moving. I’d like to read more by him. I’m working my way slowly through a 900 plus page bio of Goebbels at the moment. Different war but very disturbing…

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I found it almost unbearably affecting at times, so much so that I had to absorb it in small sections just to let it settle in my mind before moving on. The Long Road Back sounds interesting, especially as it follows on from All Quiet to cover the years following the war.

      I can imagine how disturbing and emotionally taxing the Goebbels biography must be. With German Lit Month and WW2 in mind, I’ve got Transit by Anna Seghers in my review pile, a fascinating insight into the world of refugees fleeing Europe by way of Marseille.

      Reply
  8. Caroline

    Great, review, Jacqui. I loved this book. It may seem strange as it’s so horrible but I did. I liked all of his novels by the way. He’s totally gone out of fashion in Germany – even now – with the centenary, it’s Jünger that has been brought to the attention of people.
    My last readalong title this year is another book by Vera Brittain btw. Letters from a Lost Generation.
    I read All Quiet when I was maybe 20 or so and I remember thinking “How is it possible that there’s still one war after the other, after someone has written a book like that, showing us how futile and cruel it is?” It’s sad, really.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. It’ll make my end-of-year list that’s for sure. You’re so right about the futility and horror of it all, and how we never seem to learn or find ways to avoid war. I didn’t mention it in my review, but one of the most heartbreaking aspects was the idea of young boys being sent onto the battlefield without training. Young men sent to boost troop numbers only to be killed (instantly in some cases) because they had no idea how to protect themselves or what to look out for. Such a terrible waste of young lives.

      I’m glad you rate Remarque’s other books as I was wondering about The Long Road Back. It’s funny how writers fall of fashion like that. Is there any particular reason for it in Remarque’s case? It’s interesting you should mention Jünger as I had a twitter conversation today with another reader who has Storm of Steel on his reading pile. Another great book by all accounts.

      Reply
  9. Vishy

    Beautiful review, Jacqui! By an interesting coincidence, I also read ‘All Quiet on the Western Month’ for book club, sometime back :) I loved that last passage you have quoted – so beautiful and profound. Which was your favourite scene from the book? Mine was the one in which Bäumer is trapped in the trench with a French soldier and his thoughts on it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, Vishy. It’s a great one for discussion, isn’t it? I just had to include that final passage, which just jumped out at me as I was reading this novel. It’s a quote that seems to capture the essence of the novel, the experience of a whole generation of Bäumers, and as you say, it’s so profound and heartbreaking.

      I don’t think I’ll ever forget that scene between Bäumer and the French soldier, and it’s certainly one of the most affecting sections in the book. If I think about the book as a whole though, my favourite scene is the one in which Kat and Bäumer catch the goose for a fireside feast. I loved the way Remarque portrayed the relationship between those two men.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a book packed with great quotes, isn’t it? Will you review it, Stu? I’d love to read your take on it. I must track down a copy of the 1930 film adaptation as it does sound very moving.

      Reply
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  11. Mytwostotinki

    Brilliant review of this important book. If I wouldn’t be already so busy with my TBR pile for the German Lit Month, I would include it in my list for November. Maybe I can squeeze it in, I think it would be worth it.

    Reply
  12. Richard

    Your experience reading this reminds me of my experience reading Vasily Grossman’s WWII epic Life and Fate last year: a “searing” read that I hope to reread some day!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I haven’t read the Grossman, but it’s on the list. It’s novels like All Quiet and Life and Fate that illustrate the true power of literature, the ability to affect us very deeply…

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Isn’t it just. It’s a good one for book groups as there’s so much to discuss, and some aspects still feel relevant to modern-day conflict. One of the things we discussed was how difficult it must be for soldiers to decompress and reintegrate when they return home (either on leave or permanently). Baumer’s experience really brings that to the fore. I hope your group had a good discussion on All Quiet.

      Reply
  13. Max Cairnduff

    Nice review. It does sound absolutely searing. Interesting too what you say about him falling out of fashion, this hasn’t because of the film, but without the film I suspect this would have too. Odd how that can happen, and strangely random which authors survive to the next generation and which don’t – it’s not as simple as literary quality whatever determines it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I’d thoroughly recommend this book, and it’ll definitely make my end-of-year list. Yes, the fashion thing is a bit random, isn’t it? Weird. Caroline’s comments made me want to seek out Jünger’s Storm of Steel as it’s been on my radar for a while..

      Reply
  14. Violet

    This is the best and most heart-rending book about war and its aftermath that I’ve read. No wonder it was banned in Germany before World War II. It’s chilling to think how successive generations have sold out young people by encouraging them to fight in wars. No good ever comes of war. :/

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks for dropping by, Violet. It is as you say deeply heart-rending, and the ‘moral bankruptcy’ theme struck me as one of the most affecting aspects of this novel, especially in light of what came later with WW2. As a society, I wonder if we’ll ever learn…

      Reply
  15. kainzow

    I could have bought this one some months ago,but I thought it would be too war-oriented; I read A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway,which was a war-novel,and it was really that great to me.
    I might have second thoughts now.If I see it once again on sale on the Folio Society site,I’ll buy it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read Farewell to Arms, so I can’t compare the two, but All Quiet doesn’t hold back on the details of war and the horror of life in the trenches. It’s well paced though, so the tough sections come in bursts with quieter moments in between. It’s a beautifully written novel, very heart-rending and utterly unforgettable. A Folio edition would be a lovely thing to own!

      Reply
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  17. Scott W

    Terrific review, Jacqui, one that does justice to the heartbreaking quotations you pull from the book. This title was an option when I was in a high school class, and I passed it up for one of the other choices (now long forgotten). Obviously I need to make amends for my poor judgment and get to it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott – very kind. Do you know, I could have read it at school as well but in some ways I’m rather glad I didn’t. Sometimes studying and analysing a book very intensively has the potential to suck all the life out of it tainting the reading experience in the process. It happened to me with Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I studied for O-level, and I couldn’t pick another of his novels up again for several years!

      All Quiet is definitely worth reading, a novel that truly deserves its classic status and (sadly) still has much to teach the world we live in today. I can only encourage you to pick it up at some point; I doubt you’ll regret it…

      Reply
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