All Quiet on the Western Front

all quietAll 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.

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10 Responses to All Quiet on the Western Front

  1. Jeane says:

    I read this book years after school, and thought it was great. Once I found an illustrated copy that had photographs of soldiers during the war- or places mentioned in the book- it gave it an extra vividness I miss now in plainer copies.

  2. Rachel says:

    I have never read this, and didn’t realise this was what it was about. It sounds haunting. I shall definitely look out for it from now on. Thank you for a lovely review.

  3. Steph says:

    I am ashamed to admit that base don the title alone, I thought this book was about something entirely different (like, say cowboys in Montana… oops!). Now based entirely on your review I want to read this desperately! I don’t generally seek out war fiction, but this one sounds important.

  4. Your review is very nicely done! Also for WWII I like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead.

  5. Rebecca Reid says:

    Oh it sounds heart breakingly sad. But necessary. Thanks for the review.

  6. Teresa says:

    I read this back in high school (not as assigned reading but as one of the books on a list of supplementary books that lit geeks like me were encouraged to read). I remember as a high schooler being struck by the fact that this was from the German perspective. I was young enough to have still bought into the idea that our cause was already right and the enemy was always monstrous. Seems obvious to me now that that isn’t always–or even usually–the case, but this was the book that opened me up to that obvious truth. For that alone, I’ll always think of it fondly.

  7. litlove says:

    I admire you for getting through this – not because it’s a bad book in any way, but because it’s so brutal to the emotions. I’ve yet to manage it, but I know that some day I really should.

  8. Amanda says:

    I remember reading this in high school and was blown away by how powerful a book it is. I really like how it gives the German perspective, which is an interesting and often missed part of history. I remember the scenes where they all sit on the toilet in a circle outside and just read and chat. How much they had to take each day at a time. I need to re-read this again. Thanks!

  9. Jenny says:

    Jeane — photos would have made this seem even more like a memoir. I know it reflects Remarque’s experience, but it is a novel, which was sometimes hard to remember.

    Rachel — it was really worth reading.

    Steph — how funny that you thought it was about cowboys! It’s definitely worth a look, and it’s a seminal work of war fiction, so I think you should at least put it on your list.

    rhapsodyinbooks — I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction, but no Norman Mailer. Thanks for the heads up!

    Rebecca — it is terribly sad. But also funny in parts, so it’s not totally unrelentingly grim.

    Teresa — Sometime I’d like to see a question for book bloggers about which book did that for them. For me it was The Poisonwood Bible, which, for all its admitted flaws, is why I like it.

    litlove — there’s no “should” about books! But I did find it worth the heartbreak.

    Amanda — I agree that it’s very interesting to read from the German perspective (I found the same thing reading from the Russian perspective in War and Peace.) That’s why I love to read — hearing from another side I might not ever have heard from otherwise.

  10. Pingback: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque « JoV's Book Pyramid

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