Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day to honor all who served and died in military conflict. And as it happens, I just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front. So without further ado, I bring you my review … lest we forget.
Erich Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel shows the realities of armed conflict through the eyes of Paul, a young German who served at the front along with several of his classmates. When the book opens, the men have been in service long enough to adapt to the food and living conditions, to see action, and to come together as a unit. And they began to understand that those in authority weren’t any better off than themselves:
For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress — to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. (p. 12)
It doesn’t take long for the war to take over a man’s entire being, and turn him into someone very different than he was before:
We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war. (p. 87)
When Paul is finally granted leave, he finds it difficult to adjust to daily life at home. Some want to hear about his experience, but he prefers not to share it. Some want to glorify the war, and he is also unwilling to take part in those conversations. Some, like his mother, would rather remain ignorant, which is just as difficult for Paul. He returns to the front and sees even more intense action than before, including killing a man in hand-to-hand combat. Remarque served in World War I himself, and doesn’t shy away from the details. He also brilliantly depicts the emotional impact of battle, from remorse to complete mental breakdown. The book follows Paul and his comrades through staggering loss, all the way to the end of the war.
Many books about war are a “play-by-play” of battle scenes told from the victor’s point of view. By definition, they seek to show why the war was necessary, and the good it brought to humankind. All Quiet on the Western Front is something altogether different, asking readers to consider whether any good at all can come from war. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is “no.”
Read more from The Sunday Salon here.