All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those classics more often referred to and talked about than read. It’s one of those books which doesn’t require reading to know the plot, and skimming through the book it almost feels like familiar territory. The book is eminently readable, and despite its brevity, deals with a wide variety of aspects of wartime life, both specific to the Great War and in general. Despite its age, the book has lost none of its meaning, and whilst it proves to be an important work historically, in dealing with everyday German experiences in the Great War and reactions to it during the Weimar years, it is also an enjoyable read and one that should certainly be read more often. It is a simple story told through the eyes of a lad only nineteen years old, pressured into signing up by a jingoistic schoolmaster, who is hardened, desensitised and churned up by the horrors of trench warfare in the Great War.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
It is precisely that simple point of view that makes the book so brilliant. The war experience is palpably retold through the mundane everyday occurrences. The constant search for food and provisions, the tedium of life during the quiet moments, dealing with lice and rats, the pressures of bombardment and the psychological reactions to sleeplessness and the constant threat of death. Scenes from the dressing stations are vividly retold, as are the effects of dysentery, or the aftermath of gas attacks. The novel’s narrator, Paul Bäumer, finds himself constantly searching for the answers, the reasons, the logic behind it all, and often relates conversations with his companions over why the war started, why it goes on, will it ever end, and how life can possibly continue after it all.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is its personality, its identification with the individual and the individuals as part of a collective in the great overall theatre of the war. Bäumer’s experiences throughout the war are his own, but at the same time it is only through camaraderie with those in his regiment that he is able to function, able to keep his nerves calm and endure the deadly randomness of life in the trenches. Any moment might be his last, but knowing that there are others there around him with the same thoughts and feelings allows him to stand through it. Indeed the war changes him such that he almost fears the life back on the home front, where no one can possibly understand his experiences, when all that classical liberal education instilled into him before the war has lost all shred of meaning and credibility.
At the same time, the book’s other great strength is its imprecision. Paul Bäumer, Stanislaus Katczinsky and the others might be people we are to identify with, yet at the same time they are merely shadowy figures in a much larger play. Remarque makes few references to their real identities, although we know they come from a variety of backgrounds, whether farmers, cobblers or locksmiths. Perhaps one of strongest criticisms of All Quiet On The Western Front is that the focus lies on those from poor backgrounds and the suggestion that they alone served in the fighting. Nevertheless the novel gives little intimation about the nationality of these soldiers; they could just as easily be from ‘those over there’ as Remarque often refers to the enemy. The Hollywood film adaptation of 1930 highlights this even more, as Germans with thick American accents whoop and cheer as their schoolmaster persuades them to enlist, before marching off singing “Die Wacht am Rhein”. In essence the book’s strength is its portrayal of war as an abstract concept, and featuring people of indeterminate origins who are tormented, tortured and killed under its weight.
The novel ends with the reader being told that Paul Bäumer died only a month before the Armistice, almost as if the journalistic memoirs of a soldier at war had been cut short before they could be finished. Bäumer had considered the record of his time in the war a possible source of meaning in his life after being demobbed, something which Remarque himself clearly enacted. Ultimately however, the juxtaposition of this sudden curtailment of a young man’s life, a hero’s life which the reader has shared and empathised with from the first page, with the military dispatch which can report “Im Westen nichts Neues” (more literally “Nothing new on the Western front”) leaves the reader completely unable to answer Bäumer’s searching questions, deafened by the sickening irony.
This last scene is depicted brilliantly in the film version, in a manner not described in the novel. This adaptation certainly deserves a quick mention as it is a true masterpiece of cinematography. The film still seems fairly fresh given its antiquity, and one easily forgets the primitive nature of film making at the time. In 1930 such ‘talkies’ were sufficiently new that whole apparatus had to be built around the great clunking cameras to prevent their mechanical whirrings from being recorded on tape. As already mentioned, the fact that the actors are quite blatantly American robs the adaptation of none of its truth, whilst the script stays largely true to Remarque’s original.
The book was harried by Hitler’s NSDAP as being a crime against every German who fought in the war, and naturally banned on their coming to power. Remarque himself was forced to flee the country, first to Switzerland and then on to the United States by way of France, after the Nazis revoked his German citizenship. The film adaptation even had to be withdrawn from German cinemas, after Goebbels managed to whip up such a storm of protest and disruption at the Berlin screening, and the ban was only lifted as late as the 1960s. Whilst there were many who enjoyed the war for all its glory and adventure (epitomised by books such as In Stahlgewittern by Ernst Jünger, translated as Storm of Steel), one might presume the vast majority shared Remarque’s sentiments about the war years, which leads one to query why this book was not more staunchly defended, and why so many found it abhorrent. The answer may even lie within the book itself; Bäumer finds himself on leave during one section of the book, unable to come to terms with the home front, with those untouched by the horrors of war beyond food and labour shortages. For these members of society the war is ethereal and fantastic, especially for those too young to participate (for example, see Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler: A Memoir) or too old. For them it becomes all too easy to believe in the Dolchstoßlegende, the ‘stab in the back’ myth of Germany’s loss in the First World War. For us it becomes all the more important to remember the book’s message, and to appreciate it as a masterpiece of anti-war literature.