World War I was the first total war. Once the war began, the countries involved mobilized their entire populations and economic resources to achieve victory on the battlefield. The term home front, which was widely employed for the first time during World War I, perfectly symbolized this new concept of a war in which the civilian population behind the lines was directly and critically involved in the war effort.
The war began as a clash between two coalitions of European countries. The first coalition, known as the Allied Powers, included the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Serbia and the Russian Empire. The Central Powers, which opposed them, consisted of the empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although the United States originally was neutral, it joined the Allies in 1917.
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The immediate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian nationalist. The fundamental causes of the conflict, however, were rooted deeply in the European history of the previous century,
By the end of 1914, the war entered a stalemate. Both sides became mired in two main, stationary fronts—the western front, primarily in northeastern France, and the eastern front, mainly in western Russia. At the fronts, the troops fought each other from numerous parallel lines of interconnected trenches. Each side laid siege to the other’s system of trenches and endeavoured to break through their lines.
When the war finally came to an end on November 11, 1918, and the Central Powers were defeated, the political order of Europe had been transformed beyond recognition. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires had collapsed. The war also helped precipitate the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which established the ideology of Communism in Russia.
The war also had important long-term consequences. The enormous cost of the war undermined the financial stability of all of the countries involved, and they had to bear an onerous burden of debt for many years to come. These financial losses, combined with the battlefield deaths and physical destruction, severely weakened the European powers.
Erich Maria Remarque created with his novel All Quiet on the Western Front an amazingly good picture how World War I was like. He shows the world a life created by the front in a fictive character, that could have existed everywhere on the German-French front. Remarque opens the book with the main character Paul Baeumer, who just came back from the front to get the food rations. Because their division had high losses on the previous day, everyone had a double ratio. In this scene, nobody thought about their comrades that died in the artillery fire. They are just happy about their food. Remarque already begins on page two to shock the reader with the war-reality, that most of us would rather call inhumanity.
Paul talks during the novel many times about his life in the trenches. Poison gas attacks, heavy artillery shelling or storm attacks are described by Baeumer in bitterness. He doesn’t seem to show any kind of emotions. Only rarely he realizes his own cruelty “We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world, and we had to shoot it into pieces” (Chapter 5). Here Remarque shows, that the soldiers were not only outrageous killer machines that have no sense for humanity.
Chapter six is a very important chapter in the book. Paul’s group is sent earlier to the front because the command expects a bigger attack in this sector. They pass a big area full of new coffins and they joke about it. Even though they know, the coffins were for the casualties of the awaiting English attack. During the night they don’t get shelled by the English, but by their own artillery. Remarque confines his novel on standard situations in the war that let it appear surreal because of its cruelty.
Remarque’s novel has no climax. It remembers the impressionism that dominated art at the end of the eighteenth century, but doesn’t show any one of the famous battles of World War I; instead, it seems as a permanent climax narrated in a “frog-perspective”, we never know the future or more than Paul Baeumer. The reader is always kept in Paul’s second division, but his adventure is multipliable to all 74 million men mobilized by the powers of the Great War “The first bomb, the 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 war.” (Chapter 5)
Behind the German lines, Paul and his friends have at least a bit of time to relax from the trench warfare. In these rare times, he is able to realize, in what kind of situation he lives or what he is doing. “Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades – words, words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.”
“The evolution goes backwards; the human being discovers his own instincts again and becomes more and more an animal, a raging monster in the trench-war.”
It is not only the war that shows this dreadfulness, but also Remarque’s characters.
During chapter seven, Paul gets a vacation and can leave the trenches for six weeks. All of his friends envy Paul for it and He can’t wait, till he’ll get home.
When he enters his home he first meets his sister. He is so overwhelmed by his feelings that he is not even able to show his feelings or to speak. “What could I say? Everything I could have wished for has happened.” (Chapter 7) says Paul, full of joy when he just arrived. His mother is ill when he arrives. She heard that it must be terrifying “with this gas and the rest of it.” Paul lies to her about the front; he doesn’t want her to know about the reality.
In the evening, Paul walks by a Major. He doesn’t salute properly and has to do it again. The Major asks him where he was coming from and when he told him that he came from the front, the major just replies “You think you can bring your front-line manners here, what?”
He lost his wishes and aims; he’s satisfied when he can sit somewhere alone without having to talk to anybody. The people he meets, tell him about their lives and perspectives, but he can’t feel the same as them anymore. Everything seems to him so strange, even though he knows that he talked like that before he went into the war. The war taught him, without Paul was able to influence it, to enjoy things in his life – even when they are simple things like sitting quietly and watching people. His bitterness can be seen in his envy about the people that can continue to live their life, but on the other hand, he is disgusted how anyone could ever live his life without thinking about the bombs and gas-attacks that happen only a few hundred miles away. Paul doesn’t know if his comrades are still alive at the front and he starts to worry about them.
Erich Maria Remarque also worked on the issue “Propaganda” really well in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front. When Paul is on his home-vacation, he meets many people that are not directly connected with the war. His former German-master takes him to a bar, where they and some other people talk about the war. The object to everything Paul says about the cruelty and dreadfulness in the war. They even accuse him of not knowing the facts of the war. He tells them, a breakthrough wouldn’t be possible because the enemy may have additional reinforcements but they seem to ignore his statements completely. “He dismissed the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it. “The details yes,” says he, “but this relates to the whole. And of that, you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and cannot have any general survey”. The only person, who is not asking him questions, is his mother. His father likes to see him in public in a uniform to present his son as fighting for the country.
The manipulation of the young soldiers is also described in the novel. Their school master Kantorek for instance, wrote them a letter, how great they are and their bravery should be an example for all. He even calls them the “Iron Youth” (Chapter 1). Paul gets disgusted by “These hundred thousand Kantoreks!” (Chapter 1) since he has seen the war.
His whole class volunteered for the war. For them, there was no question about joining or not joining. The School taught them to love the war and now they have seen reality. Ironically enough, the only one in Paul’s class that struggled with joining the army, died also as the first one.
The friendship under the students is also stressed by the war. From being friends in school they switched to a kind of using friendship, where
“This book is neither an accusation, nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Erich Maria Remarque, when a reporter asked him, why he wrote the book.
During World War I and World War II the world lost 35 million soldiers and about 40 million civilians. Let’s hope that this will never happen again….
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