Wednesday, April 6, 2011
All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque
I maintain that this novel is very much in the mold of the film The Hurt Locker. They are both anti-war and explore the experience of combat and the result on the human mind. Many people have watched The Hurt Locker and its core message has completely gone over their heads. This is meant to be a book review but I believe that a viewing of both makes of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Hurt locker are worth seeing as they push the same message. Essentially it is that once exposed to the horrors of war no-one is ever the same again. Remarque has the survivors mentally shattered and mere husks of their former selves, whilst The Hurt Locker has the main protagonist unable to fit back into normal society and re-enlisting. The very famous quote above says it all.
All Quiet on the Western Front also has another claim to fame. It was deemed un-Germanic and copies were burnt at the infamous book burnings staged by Joseph Goebbels in Berlin. It obviously didn't fit with the 'master race's' vision of itself as supermen unafraid to die in combat. The problem being was that Remarque had told the truth and the Nazis thought they could conveniently erase it. Well sorry Herr Hitler your little escapades are now confined to the history books whilst All Quiet on the Western Front lives on.
The novel was written in 1928 and is based on The Great War. It is told from the German point of view and it is very easy reading. Anyone with decent reading skills will be able to rattle through it in a matter of hours. Erich Maria Remarque served in the German army and gained great insight into the trench warfare of the Western Front. He is also blessed with being able to put them on to paper for all to read. He followed up this, his most famous novel, with two more pertaining to post-war Germany and the trials and tribulations of the returned soldiers attempt to reassimilate back into civilian life.
This novel is about the war at the front and how a generation of young German boys, almost straight out of high school, were imbued with patriotism and how it was all glory to die for the Fatherland. They enlist in droves and quickly have their illusions of grandeur dispelled when they enter basic training. There are introduced to the discipline of the army through a sadistic trainer who, as they later find out, knows nothing about the realities of the front. Marching drills and crawling through mud see the boys turn up in France totally unprepared for combat.
Luckily they are taken under the wing of an old hand who quickly tells them to forget everything they have been told and start listening to him. He tells them if they do then they have a better chance of surviving. These boys are quickly thrown into the deep end and endure hours of shelling, rats, water logged trenches and quarters, miles of rusty barbed wire, poor rations or next to none, the lingering smell of death, uncaring or incompetent officers, and combat. It is hell, and they quickly lose any innocence or thoughts of glory. They quickly see that what they have been told is nonsense and those who told them such things are out of touch with reality.
Slowly the initial group is either killed or wounded. The first boy killed is a severe shock and the rest find it hard to come to terms with it. They realise it could happen to them. The never ending shelling is vividly described as is the reactions of newer boys to it. Some go mad, some cry like babies, while most become fatalistic and accept it. Remarque has put into words some of the most descriptive combat scenes ever written .The reader can all but smell the cordite, the dead bodies, and hear the guns and explosions. It is a tour-de-force of descriptive writing that has never been beaten within a war novel.
The narrator of the book gets stuck in no-man's land and kills a French man with his knife. He listens to him dying. When dead he searches his pockets and finds photos, money, etc, and realises that they are both the same, men, with only the uniform being different. He says to the dead man if it wasn't for the war they would have been friends. It is a brutal and searing scene and the reader can only sympathise with these young men of all nations, who really don't understand what they are fighting for, and in all reality didn't want to be killing each other.
The scenes of the front and the ensuing combat show clearly how their young minds disintegrated. It isn't apparent to them until the narrator goes on leave back to Germany. What he encounters is a population full of propaganda and with no real knowledge of life at the front. Disillusioned, our narrator can't wait to get back as he now finds that this is his new reality, and that he has nothing in common with those back home. The front is now his home and that is where he belongs. Among the rats and the dead.
As the war progresses our narrator finds the quality and age of the replacements dropping. They are mere school boys with no right to be at there. It is obvious that things aren't going Germany's way and the survivors of the initial group can only wonder why the war is continued. The book ends with the death of the narrator. In all only one boy from that which the book follows makes it back to Germany, and he is permanently maimed.