All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

WWI-german-soldier-151

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.

15 comments

  1. Your responses to this novel will be shared by many, I think. I have just (last week) included it on a post called Let Slip the Novels of War, on my blog http://www.bookword.co.uk . It was one of 5 I recommended.
    Like you I really responded to the story told, the predicament of the young men (and a few women) that the war placed them in.
    The schoolmaster is a model of misplaced patriotism. Teachers beware.
    Caroline

  2. I am now retired but this book was an option on our reading list for 20th Century 9th grade history. The newest film is a worthwhile follow up for a study of WW I. A soldier’s letter home during that time provides a good assessment of student understanding of this war regardless of the perspective.

  3. Having only learnt about wars from the British perspective I must read this book – I’ve read, and much prefer reading – fictional accounts of the German side of both wars, but nothing non-fic as of yet.

  4. Dear Rachel: First, I must tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I too am a schoolteacher–high school, in the States–although I’m at the opposite end of my career from yours. We teach “All Quiet” every year to our sophomores, and I have never tired of it. May I ask the source of the photo you used to start out this post, and the identity of the subject, if known? Since this is the centenary of the start of the war, I know that the internet has been/will be flooded with all sorts of rich resource material–I’m looking forward to using it. Thanks again for your honest exploration of the joys and challenges of the teaching life!
    Patty

    1. Thanks Patty – it’s lovely to hear from a fellow teacher! I’m afraid I don’t know the source which is very remiss of me – I simply googled German soldier WWI and it came up. I hope you can find it again. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying my posts about teaching life – at the moment I’m too exhausted by the actual day-to-day of teaching to write anything about it unfortunately!

  5. Hi Rachel. I thought you would be interested in the following about Lew Ayers, the actor who played Paul in the 1930 film of All Quiet. The movie did very well and Ayers continued to have a successful film career, that is until WW II came along. Playing the role of Paul had such an impact on Ayers’ personal views that he registered as a conscientious objector when he was drafted in WW II. Needless to say, this ruined his career until it later came out that he served with distinction during the War in the Pacific as an ambulance driver and medic. You can check this out on his Wiki page. The role of and the sad fate of COs could be an interesting area to explore in class as well as the transforming power of literature (cf Mr. Pip).

  6. Read it when I was nineteen. It changed the way I looked at life. Wondered why should anyone go to wars? Read it again at 63, the impact was not so much, since I have seen much in life. One of the best novel I read.

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