Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) served in World War I, where he received wounds five times in a battle. The searing images of trench warfare left indelible scars on Remarque, who then attempted to exorcise his demons through the writing of literature. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is Remarque’s most memorable book, although he wrote nine others dealing with the miseries of war.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is the story of Paul Baumer, a young German soldier serving in the trenches in France. Baumer’s story is not a pleasant one; he volunteered for the war when his instructor in school, Kantorek, urged the class to join up for the glory of Germany. After a rigorous period of military training (where Paul and his buddies meet the hated drill instructor Himmelstoss, a recurring character throughout the book), Baumer and his friends go to the front as infantrymen. Filled with glorious ideas about war by authority figures back home, Baumer quickly discovers that the blood-drenched trenches of the Western Front are a quagmire of misery and violent death.
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As soon as the first shells explode in the mud Paul and his friends realize everyone back home is a liar, that war is not the glorious transformation of boys into men but rather the systematic destruction of all that is decent and healthy. As Paul’s friends slip away one by one through death, desertion, and injury, Paul begins to wonder about his own life and whether he will survive not only the war but also a world without war.
Remarque’s book exposes all of the insanities of war. The incongruities of violent battle versus long periods of boredom repeatedly appear throughout the book. On one day, Paul and his friends sit around discussing mundane topics; the next day they are bashing French skulls during an offensive. It is these extremes that caused so many problems with the psychological disposition of the men. In one chapter of the book, Paul and several new recruits, hunkered down in a dugout, withstand hour upon hour of continuous shellfire until one of the green recruits snaps and tries to make a run for freedom.
Where else but in a war could one walk through a sea of corpses while enjoying the sunshine and the gentle cadences of the birds in the trees? That such an unnatural activity as mass murder takes place surrounded by the natural beauty of the world is a theme found in many World War I authors and poets. Remarque’s book is noteworthy because he does a better job of showing this strange duality than other writers.
Also of interest is that this book views the war from the German side. From what I read recently, the Germans had a tough time throughout the war with rations, troop rotations away from the front, and supplies. This is apparent in Remarque’s treatment of the German war effort, especially toward the end of the book when Germany begins to retreat in the face of overwhelming American military power. Paul’s remarks about the evil presence of tanks are an interesting insight into the effect those iron behemoths had on the ill-equipped and exhausted Germans.
The cover of this edition trumpets this as “the greatest war novel of all time.” And so it is, but not in the way some people might think. This is the greatest war novel ever because Remarque’s book is anti-war. Those that read “All Quiet on the Western Front” will see warfare stripped of its flag-waving, parades, and John Wayne glory. War is death, with the glory going to the few who survive. Remarque makes a brilliant contribution to world literature with this riveting novel.
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