I’ve read plenty of books about WWI, many by people who actually served in the conflict. However, my view has always been completely one sided. I know about the British experience of life in the trenches, and I know how British soldiers and civilians largely viewed the war, but I have never read anything about the German perspective. As I’m teaching a unit on WWI literature this term, I thought I’d better address that rather large gap in my knowledge, and so I picked up the most famous German account of life at the front, All Quiet on the Western Front. From the very first page, I was taken aback at how similar Remarque’s observations are to those of the most prominent British chroniclers of the war, Graves and Sassoon. Apart from the German names of the soldiers, I could just as well have been reading about life in the British Army. This disconcerted me completely, as I soon found myself desperately concerned about the safety of Paul, the young narrator, and absolutely furious at any Allied soldier who tried to kill him. I didn’t care which country he was from or what he represented; I just wanted him to stay alive.
This is what Remarque’s novel makes so completely clear; when it came to the soldiers on the ground, there was no right or wrong, no good and no bad. There was just survival, pure and simple. The other side was only the enemy because they put your life and that of your friends in danger; the ideology behind the war was largely irrelevant to those forced to act out the desires of those in power. As someone so used to thinking of the British and Allied armies as the ‘good’ side and the Germans and other ‘Central Powers’ as the ‘bad’ side, it was so thought provoking and challenging to think of the war on a smaller and more human scale, and to consider why I have always so simplistically sympathised with the soldiers on the winning side when neither group were to blame for the situation they found themselves in. Especially after conscription was introduced, none of Europe’s young men had a choice but to join their armies, regardless of whether they agreed with the governments who had plunged their countries into war. Those German boys had dreams, too; futures they had studied and planned for, wives and children they wanted to go home to. Of course they did. The war was a tragedy for everyone involved, and perhaps even more so for the losing side, because they had to return to a depressed and defeated country rather than a jubilant, victorious one. It took me by surprise how little I had really thought about that before.
The other element of the novel I found fascinating was how Remarque described the feeling of utter abandonment and hopelessness many young, educated men felt after being confronted by the horrors of war. Those who were older than them had seen a life before the war, and had jobs and families to go back to afterwards. Those who had seen nothing of life yet, and been brought up to believe in the high ideals taught to them by their schoolmasters, found that the bedrock of their lives and future ambitions had been destroyed, and they had nothing to aim for and nothing to return to. They had lost faith in their world, and saw little point in the childish, idealistic dreams they had once had. With no experience of an adult world outside of horror, murder and destruction, what hope did they have for the bright future they had planned before the war ripped their worlds apart?
This is an incredibly moving novel that gives such a vital voice to the young men of Germany’s ‘lost generation’. Unlike many British WWI memoirs and novels, it is the story of a normal soldier, not an Officer, who showed no distinguishing merit on the battlefield but was merely an ordinary boy from an ordinary family, thrust into an horrific situation thanks to an accident of birth and forced to do the best he could under the circumstances. Remarque is searingly honest about the realities of war and the way in which it alters the accepted boundaries of human morality and behaviour. He is also brilliant in his exploration of the complete and utter futility of war; no wonder Hitler had his books burned in the 1930s, before he launched his own. Reading All Quiet on the Western Front left me feeling deeply sad, but also in awe of the immense capabilities of the human spirit to overcome the most desperate and harrowing of circumstances. I can’t recommend it highly enough.