Critical Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1929. 295.
The nature of warfare as depicted in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was a brutish and inhumane experience for soldiers on all sides of the front. This novel, told from the point of view of Paul Baumer, a German soldier on the Western front during WWI explores the grim reality soldiers faced on a daily basis and demonstrates the tremendous toll the war took on the mental and physical conditions of soldiers fighting on both sides of the war. All Quiet on the Western Front is an invaluable source for the historical record as it allows the reader access to a perspective on the war which previously could not be experienced.
The historical realities at work in the novel demonstrated the extent to which soldiers fighting in the war did not fully understand how they had come to be the ones doing the fighting. Indeed, a scene in the novel features the main character, Paul Baumer, discussing with his comrades the various strategies which should rightfully be employed to solve international disputes: “a declaration on war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance tickets and a bull fight. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries …can have it out among themselves” (41). This preposterous image actually demonstrates an important element to the reality at the front which was the extent to which soldiers felt alienated by having to fight on such a mass-scale over the conflicts which had emerged on account of only a few. The realities portrayed demonstrated how poorly prepared many soldiers were for the front, especially the new recruits who had little training and how, in many cases, lives were lost due to the inadequacies of the tactical strategies applied by generals.
Another important feature of the war effort as demonstrated within the work was the extent to which WWI was a developing war. That is, on both a mental and technical level the war in 1914 was very different from the realities of the war which raged on in 1918. Paul Baumer’s psyche can be seen as developing rapidly throughout the course of the novel. In the beginning his character is almost jovial, brazen and spritely in carrying-out his wartime duties. There is a sense that he and his comrades fancy themselves in a grand adventure which will lead them to victory. The tone of the novel in the beginning suits a positive thinking individual as he recounts “today is wonderfully good” when the mail comes and he and his comrades receive letters from home (7). His enjoyment of his hours off-service playing card games and drinking is another example as he refers to these times as: “wonderfully carefree hours (9)”. But as their experience wanes on it became increasingly difficult for Paul and his friends to find joy in these trivial pursuits as they did not balance out the atrocities they were witnessing daily on the battlefield as is demonstrated through the powerful and graphic visual images portrayed through the text:
“We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death (134)”.
But the mental changes taking place were not the only developments witnessed throughout the war. In fact, the mental traumas experienced by soldiers speak strongly of a changing technical experience as well. For example, upon returning to the front Paul notes “there are too many new guns, too many aeroplanes (280)”. And as the tide turns against Germany Paul’s observations become more and more bleak: “there are so many airmen here…for every one German plane there come at least five English and American…For one hungry, wretched German soldier there come five of the enemy, fresh and fit (286)”. As technological advancements incorporated more effective guns, tanks and even aircraft into the war more substantial losses were faced on both sides of the front. Fear of death and a supreme appreciation for life can be seen as becoming more prominent characteristics of the soldiers’ psyche: “Never has life in its niggardliness seemed to us so desirable as now…O Life, life, life! (285)”.
The most striking aspect of Remarque’s novel is his depiction of the mental and physical repercussions of the war on those at the front. As depicted above, the physical mutilation which took place during the war was witnessed daily by soldiers who desperately tried to avoid the same fate. Experiencing and witnessing physical mutilation took an extreme toll on the mental faculties of the soldiers. Paul’s experience when he is given leave to go home demonstrates the common soldier’s inability to relate to the realities of civilian life after having experienced the war: “What is leave? A pause that only makes everything after it so much worse…I ought never to have come on leave (179-185)”. Furthermore, Remarque includes countless examples of shellshock and the various forms it took. Some men resorted to claustrophobic panic attacks, as Paul experiences with one soldier who felt “as though he was suffocating and wants to get out at any price…he would run about anywhere regardless of cover (190)”. Still others became so homesick the sight of anything that reminded them of home would lead them to absentmindedly desert the front in search of home as was the case with Paul’s friend Detering who’s “misfortune was that he saw a cherry tree in a garden (275)”.
In conclusion All Quiet on the Western Front paints a very vivid picture of the realities of WWI and the nature of warfare experienced by the soldiers at the front. The fear and alienation soldiers felt on account of the carnages they were forced to witness and the progressive nature of warfare as new weapons technologies were introduced year after year, only lead them to cling to life in fear and made recuperation into civilian life after the war virtually impossible. The impact of the war on those at the front was undoubtedly life altering for the few who were lucky to survive, the consequences of which would be witnessed in civilian life for generations to come until the process repeated itself, arguably to a much worse extent in 1939.