All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s disturbing and memorable book about German trench life during World War I, was published in 1928. It’s a novel, but in its honesty it reads like a memoir: Remarque doesn’t worry about whether his audience will enjoy hearing what he has to say, he simply gives Paul Bäumer’s first-person account of what it’s like to fight that war on the German side. He tells of increasingly desperate, losing conditions against the increasingly powerful French; loss of more than fifty percent of troops in a single battle; unending noise, stench, and mud; and unexpected distance from people at home who can’t understand what he’s been through, even though they may admire him.
Bäumer and his friends are 19 years old at the start of the book, having enlisted at the age of 18 or even younger. By this time, they’re the old, mature troops — they’ve survived a whole year. (Ten new recruits die in battle for every experienced man; they don’t know how to dodge shells, when to put on their gas masks, or a dozen other survival tricks.) They are close friends, pragmatic but indissolubly bonded. No one outside their experience could understand their love for each other and the care they take of each other, from sabotaging cruel superior officers to finding four-poster beds for hard guard duty.
The French are fed better than the Germans, clothed better, armed better. They’re seemingly inexhaustible. When the Germans aren’t fighting, they’re thinking about women, or simply foraging for something to eat; after all, they’re 19-year-old boys!
But these are boys with wounds, physical and spiritual. During the course of the book, one of these loses a leg, another goes mad, another tries to escape and is never seen again after his court-martial. Others die, blind and in pain. Bäumer kills in hand-to-hand combat, survives gas attacks, and climbs inside a coffin for shelter. After these horrors and more, he returns to his family, but finds them no comfort: they’re hungry for an account of a glorious war he’s never known. In the end, only he is left of his troupe of friends, facing a devastating loss, political, national, and personal.
This book was among the many books banned and burned in Nazi Germany. The Nazi regime was built on the veterans of World War I, but the leaders had no desire to remind their electorate what war was really like, or of the futility of killing. Instead, they wanted to inspire a desire for revenge. Books like this had to be suppressed, lest anyone remember that war is misery. This is a brilliant book, very personal. I wondered as I read it whether Remarque had read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or whether it was just a common set of observations between soldiers: the disbelief, for instance, that anyone could be trying to kill me — me! whom everyone loves! I know many people read this book in school, but if you haven’t, as I hadn’t, it’s well worth the time, and unfortunately, it still has a lot to say to us today.