When my friend lent me her copy of All Quiet on the Western Front (along with a couple of other books), she told me that it was pretty depressing. At the time, I was just finishing reading David Copperfield, so I was kind of keen to read something a bit shorter as my next book. But, taking her advice, I held off, and read other things while mentally preparing myself for AQWF (plus there were a lot of other things going on at the time).
All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque, had been on my to-read list for quite some time (it was just lucky coincidence that this friend of mine had a copy to lend me). To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I actually knew what the novel was about when I put it on that list – I just knew that it was something about war, and that it’s a classic. Yeah, I never even bothered to Google it before adding it to my TBR list…
Well, anyway, as it turns out, AQWF is about World War I, and is told from the perspective of a young German soldier (Paul Bäumer). It is both gut-wrenching and heart-rending, and I kind of wonder if it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make this compulsory reading for high school students (except for all the graphic details…)
I mean, I really enjoyed studying Modern History in high school, and part of me reckons it would’ve been great to have read AQWF back then. It’s just the whole perspective of it – it makes it more real and more personal than the general “big picture” way that history is taught. They’re complementary views, I guess. And I did read other war novels during high school, but I don’t think any of them had as much impact on me as AQWF has had.
What I found interesting while reading AQWF was that I often forgot that the narrator is German. A lot of what I’ve learnt, and a lot of the stories that I’ve heard/read about WWI are from the British / Allied Forces side of it, so that’s just what I’m used to. And then something about Paul Bäumer’s story kind of felt so familiar that my mind must’ve just kept thinking this was another one of those war stories. And I suppose that says a lot about how universal the experience of war can be for soldiers on the frontline, regardless of which “side” you’re on.
Side note: the edition I read has an afterword (written by Brian Murdoch, who also translated this edition) that pointed out that the word “enemy” is rarely used in the novel. Instead, Bäumer tends to talk about “the others” or use other, less aggressive words. Murdoch explains that the real enemy is death.
If you ever, for some bizarre reason, need to convince someone that war is a truly terrible and wasteful thing, AQWF would probably be a good place to start. There are a couple of conversations in the book centred around the pointlessness and absurdity of war (well, two that stand out in my mind, at least). In Chapter 9, a group of them are talking about why the war started, and I particularly like what Albert Kropp says:
“…’our teachers and preachers and newspapers all tell us that we are the only ones with right on our side, and let’s hope it’s true – but the French teachers and preachers and newspapers all insist that they are the only ones in the right. How does that figure?'” (p.140)
The way they question the war and why they’re out there is contrasted with their sense of duty, and what I suppose is an innate determination to protect their country:
“The feelings of nationalism that the ordinary soldier has are expressed in the fact that he is out here. But it doesn’t go any further; all his other judgements are practical ones and made from his own point of view.” (p.142)
I can’t find the other conversation (and hadn’t thought to note it down while I was reading, but I guess I hadn’t expected it to stick with me like it has), but I think it’s Tjaden that says something about how it should be the guys in charge, whoever decided to start the war, that should fight it out, in a boxing ring or something.
And because the group primarily consists of Paul’s schoolmates, there is speculation about peacetime, and what life would be like for them after the war (if they got there). There’s the sense that life has basically been irreparably destroyed for them:
“We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts.” (p.61)
I think that really cut deep because I’m in my 20s; these guys were younger than me when they went through all this. Through stories like this one, I can imagine what it must’ve been like out there, but I find it hard to imagine surviving it all – physically or mentally.
There’s so much more that I want to mention here (when Paul gets leave, and visits his mother and sister back home; when certain characters die; details of gory injuries and body parts blasted off; that time Paul stabbed another man, and had to stay in the same shell hole while he died…) but I don’t want to turn this into some sort of (disjointed) essay.
Besides, I reckon All Quiet on the Western Front is going to be one of those books that I’ll go back to one day (at least, despite all the devastation contained within its pages, it’s definitely one that I want to revisit). It’s the sort of novel that’s good to read if you feel like you need to recalibrate your perspective on life.
(The edition I read was published by Vintage Books 1996)