All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Published 13 Mar 2017
With All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque has written what is arguably the best, most true-to-life war novel ever published. The book is particularly interesting from the point of view of the allied countries because, instead of being told by an American or English soldier as many war stories are, it is told from the point of view of an enemy soldier: Paul Bäumer, a nineteen-year-old volunteer in the German Army during World War I(Remarque 5).
Remarque tells his story in the first person through the eyes of Paul Bäumer. Although they volunteered for the army due to the encouragement of their schoolmaster, who appealed to their duty, Bremer and his friends are relatively free of political ideology at the front. Instead they struggle to survive the day both physically and mentally. Remarque rehearses the details of the day-to-day life of a soldier living on the front; the soldiers routinely search for food, tobacco, and clothing. Bäumer and his three friends have in some sense at least become used to the death around them. When they return from the front with nearly half of their company either dead or injured they claim the right to all of the rations the cook in the rear has prepared for the Second Company: enough for almost two complete rations each (Remarque 5-8). When they visit a wounded friend in the field hospital who has lost a leg and will die, they discuss whether or not he wants to give his soft leather boots to his friends (Remarque 14-17). This attitude about provisions as opposed to human life is not callousness, because the men are close friends, in fact friendship of the few among so many thousands of soldiers is a theme of All Quiet on the Western Front. Instead it appears to be a survival mechanism. Instead of being destroyed by the heavy losses to their company and the injury and death of their friend, they minimize and accept the loss by concentrating on their personal gain.
Remarque writes using a simple style. He describes what happens to his characters without great embellishment thus setting a tone of sameness and routine. At times Remarque enhances the mood by shifting quickly and easily from past tense to present tense and back again. This technique allows the reader to experience the urgency during battle scenes and to participate in the confusion that Paul Bäumer sometimes undergoes (Remarque 59-71). This unusual style provides a rhythm that resonates with the rapid shifts the friends have undergone: they were students, then soldiers; in battle and behind the lines; on furlough at home then back at the front (Remarque throughout).
Remarque is particularly well-qualified to write this novel because he served in the German Army for two years during World War I. Like his protagonist, Remarque was wounded several times, visited his ailing mother while on leave and spent the bulk of his military career serving on the western front (Lukkonen). At times, the book reads more like a memoir than a novel.According to the dedication page, Remarque wanted to write a book about a generation of men who were destroyed, even if they physically survived the war, by World War I. He did not set out to write an adventure, an accusation or an apology (Remarque dedication page). Remarque was extremely successful in achieving his purpose. Its immediate success illustrates how those who lived during the war perceived the book. All Quiet on the
Western Front was an almost immediate success both in Germany and throughout the world. More than 1.2 million copies were sold in its first year of publication.
As a consequence of All Quiet on the Western Front Remarque came under attack by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. His books were banned and Remarque lost his German citizenship in 1938. He was forced to escape through France and made his way to the United States where he became a citizen. In the time between World War I and the publication of his book, Remarque lived an impoverished and sometimes destitute life. The success of his book allowed him to become a literary celebrity throughout the world with sufficient money to grandly frequenting such renown nightclubs as the Stork Club and 21 in New York and eventually marrying the Hollywood star Paulette Goddard (Lukkonen).
The title All Quiet on the Western Front refers to the sameness of soldier’s life during the war. He gets up; he eats; he searches for food; sometimes he fights; he sleeps and then does it again the next day. This title supports the purpose of Remarque’s book. Life during war is not an adventure to be enjoyed; it is a struggle to endure. Remarque wrote a sequel to this book called The Road Back that tells the story of survivors of the war and their efforts to return to civilian society after leaving the military (Remarque throughout; (Lukkonen).
All Quiet on the Western Front is an excellent, important book. One that expresses the horror of war and the damage it does to individuals. One would hope that such deleterious effects would encourage the end of war, but this has not been the case. Each generation seems determined to join previous lost generations by fighting in its own wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and the current war in Iraq and many other multi-national, international, and civil wars. It is almost as if each generation must learn this lesson firsthand for itself.
- Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. Boston: Little Brown, 1929.
- Lukkonen, Petri. “Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) – pseudonym for Erich Paul Remark.” 1991-2007.