Today’s choice is a novel I’ve read several times before but, perhaps surprisingly, not since I started reviewing. I say ‘surprisingly’ as this is a book that seems perfect for German Literature Month given that the event takes place in November, yet somehow I’ve always missed the right time, only remembering when the moment had passed. However, this time around, my memory was jogged by something I saw online (thank you, Twitter!), so it’s time to head off to the trenches, in the company of a young man who’ll tell us all about the highs and (especially) lows of war.
Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is an absolute classic of world literature, and with good reason. In just under two-hundred pages, in the form of the musings of a young soldier detailing his experiences, it lays bare the stupidity, insanity and cruelty of armed conflict. It’s an absolute must-read, and if you need any more persuading, the writer’s books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 for their defeatist attitude towards the glory of giving up your life for the Fatherland…
The book follows a fairly simple structure, narrated by Paul Bäumer, an ordinary German soldier fighting in World War One. Through good luck, and a little help from his friends, he’s made it through the dangerous first weeks and months in the army, and he’s now a hardened soldier doing his best to get by. Over the course of twelve chapters, a number of scenes are strung together, following Paul on his travels, with there being no real plot apart from a soldier’s-eye view of the war.
Contrary to what you might expect, it’s not all about the fighting, either. Remarque was a writer who enjoyed a little melodrama and tranquillity, and there are a number of scenes in which Paul and his companions spend hours sitting by rivers, lying in meadows and watching butterflies. One adventure even has the narrator and two of his friends braving guards, and a river, to seek comfort in the arms of some French women, spending a few hours of pleasure fraternising with the enemy.
However, even when the soldiers aren’t in action, the war is never far away, and with the constant dull boom of guns in the distance, the men are never able to fully switch off. Gradually, Remarque takes us closer to the front, and when we get there, Paul treats us to the full experience. There follow hellish scenes of muddy trenches, bomb-holes, the constant ear-shattering noise, the bullets and grenades whizzing past at all times – and the constant, nerve-shattering tension of waiting for a bullet with your name on it to come hurtling across no-man’s land…
One idea pursued throughout the book is how to bear the unbearable, with a prime example being the dark humour shown by the soldiers when walking past a pile of coffins:
»Da ist ja gut versorgt zur Offensive«, sagt Müller erstaunt.
»Die sind für uns«, knurrt Detering.
»Quatsch nicht!«, fährt Kat ihn an.
»Sei froh, wenn du noch einen Sarg kriegst«, grinst Tjaden, »dir verpassen sie doch nur eine Zeltbahn für deine Schießbudenfigur, paß auf!«
“They’re well supplied for the offensive,” says Müller in surprise.
“They’re for us,” snarls Detering.
“Stop talking rubbish!” chides Kat.
“You’ll be lucky to get a coffin,” grins Tjaden, “they’ll just wrap a tarpaulin around your skin and bones, just you see!”
*** (my translation)
As Paul notes:
Auch die anderen machen Witze, unbehagliche Witze, was sollen wir sonst tun. – Die Särge sind ja tatsächlich für uns. In solchen dingen klappt die Organisation.
p.74 (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1998)
The others also crack jokes, inappropriate jokes, what else can we do. The coffins really are for us. In such matters, the system works perfectly. ***
Knowing death is just a false step away, there’s a driving need to laugh in its face, lest it come to occupy all of their thoughts.
Of course, this isn’t always easy, and one reason for this is an inability to think about what comes next. As Paul’s friend Kat says about this generation sacrificed for a doomed cause:
»So junge Kerle« – Er wiederholt es: »So junge, unschuldige Kerle – « (p.57)
“Such young boys”. He repeated it: “Such young, innocent boys” ***
Those who are older will return to their lives while those who follow will never really understand what happened. These men, still boys, really, have been thrown into the war before their lives have even started, and Remarque will go on to follow this generation’s fate in subsequent books, such as Der Weg Zurück (The Way Back). Of course, that’s just those who make it through the war alive.
Im Westen nichts Neues is also impressive for how it shows war in all its facets. After being wounded, Paul ends up in hospital with men who will never recover, treated by doctors with a sadistic streak. During his leave back home, what should be a happy time is tainted by the realisation that nobody here really understands what he’s been through. Before returning to the front, he spends some time at a camp guarding starving Russian prisoners-of-war, knowing that they’re not evil enemies, but poor sods like him, who’d rather just be at home.
My version has an afterword by academic (and Remarque researcher) Tilman Westphalen, who, rather than giving his own opinions, looks at a number of different reactions, both contemporary and later, to the book. We learn how the novel came from the writer’s own war experiences, with the story only erupting from his pen after a number of years had passed. While there were, of course, many who immediately recognised the book as an instant classic, there were just as many, from all parts of the political spectrum, who denounced it. Ironically, it was criticised both for being too anti-war, and therefore unpatriotic, and for being too accepting of the status quo and not advocating revolution – sometimes, you just can’t please anybody…
In a year when war has once again erupted in Europe, and conflict looks ever more inevitable elsewhere, reading Im Westen nichts Neues is a timely reminder of the futility and waste of war, and of the effect it has on individuals and nations. Remarque’s work may have failed to put an end to war, but as he says in the interview that ends Westphalen’s afterword, that doesn’t mean we should give up:
Mann kann einfach nur sich hinsetzen […] und daran arbeiten. Vielleicht hilft es auch etwas […] Das ist der notwendige Optimismus des Pessimisten. (p.213)
All you can do is sit down […] and work at it. Perhaps it helps somewhat […] That is the necessary optimism of the pessimist. ***
And even if war continues to rage, ever more brutally and dangerously, Remarque’s novel has lost none of its power. It’s a sobering reminder of just who suffers when governments decide that it’s time to use some of those expensive toys they have lying around.
13 thoughts on “‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’) by Erich Maria Remarque (Review)”
As you say Tony, a good time to reread this book. Thanks for this reminder of the power and enduring relevance of this novel.
Mandy – Lest we forget…
It has lost none of its power, has it? And such a necessary balance to all of the accounts of war from the other side, so that we don’t demonise the enemy. I am working up my courage to watch the new German adaptation on Netflix.
Marina Sofia – Not sure I’d be up for that – but I wonder if that’s the one my daughter was watching in class last week!
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Hi Tony, a nice review! I read “Im Westen nicht neues” a long time ago, in 1996 in a nice Dutch translation. I’m a bit wary about books (and movies) about wars, so I don’t think I will reread this one soon.
There’s one other writer whose books about the First World War I recommend. That’s Jacques Tardi, writer of a serie of beautiful graphic novels. Highly recommended. Greetings, Erik
Erik – Thanks for the tip 🙂
Ashamed to say I’ve never read this Tony – although I obviously should. I don’t need convincing of the futility of war, but it’s a classic…
Kaggsy – Oh, a must-read, and a tearjerker in places, too…
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I haven’t read it but I happened to watch the new film adaptation with my kids on November 11, which was good timing. We did watch a war movie on purpose (Remembrance Day) but I didn’t realize it took place in the dying days of the war, so the timing was perfect. The movie was really brutal and unrelenting, and gave some glimpses of what was going on among the military brass and the French and German men who were negotiating armistice. Sounds like that stuff wasn’t in the book.
Laura – That actually sounds *nothing* like the book at all! The last days of the war are only covered (rather minimally, from Paul’s viewpoint) in the last few pages!
I loved your views on one of my all-time favourites. There is a particular scene when the narrator has to tell about the death of his fellow-comrade to the latter’s widowed mother. After all these years, the scene never leaves my head,
Neeruahcop – Yes, it’s a powerful scene where he needs to keep his cool and avoid saying something he’ll regret later…