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.
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.