Wednesday, April 6, 2011

All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque

 This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

 What can I, a humble blog writer with only two degrees to his name, possibly add to what has already been written about this, the best anti-war novel ever? Well nothing really, except my own feeling and take on it. I have been interested in military history since I was seven, so that is now thirty four years. I did my degrees the hard hard way, extra-murally, and they took me quite a number of years and many sacrifices to achieve. So hopefully in amongst all that I have garnished something resembling knowledge, and an ability to critique this most famous of Twentieth Century war novels.

 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.

 All Quiet on the Western Front is quite simply a brilliantly written description of what the battlefields of the Great War were like. Even though it is German written and focused it applies to any of the soldiers who served in the trenches from any nation. None of them returned back to their respective nations the same as they had left. Many came back badly maimed, but it was the unseen maiming that the novel explores. The men saw terrible things, endured awful living conditions close to that of animals, and killed and maimed their fellow human beings. They came back to a population totally unaware of what they had seen and in many respects uncaring. They left as young men with no skills and came back with none. Also they faced civilian populations that wanted to quickly forget the war with its privations and rationing,  and were unequipped to take into the workforce so much unskilled labour.

 There is just nothing written that exposes the horror of war on and off the battlefield like this novel .Its results ran right throughout society and All Quiet on the Western Front is as good a reason as to use diplomacy over fighting. After reading this, the greatest, and clearest, anti-war novel ever written, no reader would want to pick up arms and experience the battlefield. There is no adventure or glory. Only death.

Click here for wikipedia's page on the novel. It provides plenty of additional information and useful links:

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