All Quiet on the Western Front, by German writer Eriq Maria Remarque, explores the horrors of World War I through the eyes of a German soldier named Paul. Remarque transforms this tale of a young recruit who is thrown headfirst into a raging war into a lesson about life. Remarque attempts to teach the reader to understand the horror of war, the value of friendship and the absurdity of traditional values.
Remarque includes discussions among Paul’s group, and Paul’s own thoughts while he observes Russian prisoners of war to show that no ordinary people benefit from a war. No matter what side a man is on, he is killing other men just like himself, people with whom he might even be friends at another time. But Remarque doesn’t just tell us war is horrible: he vividly supports his point by assaulting all of the reader’s senses.
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Remarque uses the sight of newly dead soldiers, unearthly screaming of the wounded horses, the smell of three layers of bodies to hammer home the atrocity of war. The crying of the horses is especially terrible. Horses are innocent bystanders, their bodies shining beautifully before being cut down by shellfire. To Paul, their dying cries represent all of nature accusing Man, the great destroyer.
Another message that Remarque attempts to convey to the reader is the value of enduring friendship. The theme of comradeship occurs often and gives the novel both lighthearted and sad moments. Away from battle, the soldiers formed deep bonds, showing not only the importance but also the strength of the camaraderie between the men. Friendship emerges as an even more important theme at the front.
Throughout the book, the reader sees men helping wounded comrades at great personal risk, often with tragic results. The reader can understand how hearing the voices of friends when one is lost or even just hearing their breathing during the night can keep a soldier going. The reader grieves with Paul and almost puts down the book when his dearest friend dies. Friendship was often the last thing keeping a soldier from giving up, and, when it was lost, life seemed to lose its meaning.
Remarque also preaches rejection of traditional values. In his introductory note, Remarque said that his novel was “not an accusation”. Rather, it is a rejection of traditional militaristic values of Western civilization. This denunciation is impressed on the reader through the young soldiers. Represented by Paul and his friends, these soldiers see military attitudes as stupid and accuse their elders of betraying them. Often the spit and polish mind-sets of their superiors put the front-liners in danger. The betrayal by elders can be seen in many instances, including during the Kaiser’s visit to the front. This scene hints at some of Remarque’s personal grievances with his country’s government.
Like All Quiet On The Western Front, most of Remarque’s other books were written with the intent of censuring war. This book does an especially good job of this, relying on the wonderful prose of the author to brand its ideas into the reader’s mind. It also impresses upon the reader the author’s belief in the merit of friendship and the triviality of traditional values. In the end, this book serves its purpose well: it makes the reader wonder why we still tolerate and advocate the atrocity that is war.
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