“The culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood.”
All Quiet on the Western Front from author Erich Maria Remarque appears on most lists as one of the greatest war novels ever written. The author fought in WWI, and was wounded five times. Almost a century later, the book hasn’t lost one iota of its power, and it stands as a testament to the inhumanity and insanity of war.
Narrated by nineteen-year-old German Paul Baumer, the story begins with Paul and his classmates on the front lines. He notes that all of the pupils were under tremendous pressure to enlist from their schoolmaster Kantorek and other gung-ho war supporters who were “convinced they were acting for the best–in a way that cost them nothing.” Paul notes that “even one’s parents were ready with the word `coward’; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for.”
Paul, a sensitive young man, describes leaving his books and his poems behind and attending army-training camp. He details how the experience involves a “renunciation of personality” and the recruits were “trained for heroism as though we were circus-ponies.” The hierarchal structure of the army, the flattening of the recruits’ personalities, and the acceptance of meaningless orders all result in the process of dehumanization and become a matter of course by the end of Paul’s training.
Sent off to the front line, Paul’s classmates are killed or horribly maimed, one by one. Even those who survive will be forever changed by their experiences, and Paul notes, “The war swept us away.” While each loss is felt deeply by the other men, they continue on comforting each other and sharing their paltry rations whenever they can. Surreal memories of his past life flood through Paul’s consciousness, but the memories “do not awaken desire as much as sorrow.”
Remarque’s novel would be unbearably painful to read had the author handled the text any differently. In spite of the subject matter, the story is told unemotionally-although there is certainly an emotional reaction from the reader. Amidst the death and carnage, there are brief moments of life and humour-a shared feast, and revenge against a tyrannical soldier. In calm moments, the soldiers speculate how the war started and conclude that war is a “kind of fever” and that it would never have happened if “20 or 30 people in the world had said `no’.”
Paul describes the painful difficulties of taking leave–inevitable questions from civilian relatives about conditions are avoided. If pressed, Paul lies to spare his family the truth, but the horrors of war are revealed to the reader. If there is one good thing created by war, then surely it must be the camaraderie that exists between the soldiers, and Remarque’s protagonist is eternally bonded to his fellow soldiers. What a paradox war is-the best thing it produces is the loyalty and camaraderie experienced by those who fight, and yet while the soldiers fight and help defend one other, they are ultimately exposed to death as either destroyers or victims. All Quiet on the Western Front is an amazing, unforgettable book–it’s just as relevant today as the day it was published.