Erich Maria Remarque’s classic 1928 novel All Quiet on the Western Front remains one of the twentieth century’s most poignant critiques of modern warfare. Remarque himself served with the German military during the First World War and the details related in the novel reflect a deep familiarity with the conditions of war. Themes and ideas the author addresses include the horrors of war, the effect of war on soldiers, nationalism, patriotic pressure, and dehumanization.
Leading up to the First World War, several war narratives presented more realistic depictions but such narratives also focused on romantic notions of warfare which idealize struggle and uphold masculine glory and honor. All Quiet on the Western Front both portrays a realistic image of the First World War and questions the romanticism historically associated with warfare. This essay will explore the ways in which All Quiet on the Western Front is reflective of its period, what purpose it served during its time of publication, and the novel’s historic significance.
All Quiet on the Western Front follows the story of the narrator, Paul Bäumer, a nineteen-year-old who joins the German army and is deployed to the Western Front along the French border. He and his classmates are compelled to join the fight after listening to their schoolteacher, Kantorek’s, patriotic lectures. After grueling basic training and several weeks of unimaginably brutal fighting at the front, however, Paul and his friends become disillusioned. They recognize rhetoric which venerates the glory of war as a tool of manipulation to encourage young men to join the fray. Remarque emphasizes this disillusionment by describing in detail Paul’s thoughts on impending threats in contrast with vague mentions on battles and skirmishes—which are supposed to highlight national glory and achievement.
Various anecdotes highlight Paul’s increasing emotional deterioration. Unlike his comrades, Paul is not shocked when a fellow soldier wants to take the shoes of the fallen Kemmerich—he only sees the practicality of the situation (Remarque, 19). After a particularly graphic scene in which shelling forces the corpses buried in a grave to the surface where they mingle with shot down soldiers, Paul reflects that he probably won’t be fit for civilian life after the war (Remarque, 85). A triste with a young French woman in a swimming hole offers Paul a glimmer of happiness and innocence: “…I feel the lips of the little brunette…and I let it all fall from me, war and terror and grossness, in order to awaken young and happy” (Remarque, 151). On a visit home, Paul feels completely disconnected from his hometown because he cannot share his emotional distress with anyone. He says he does not, “belong here anymore, it is a foreign world” (Remarque, 170). Further, actively rejects the philosophies of his former schoolmaster which impelled him to enter the war in the first place. The only person Paul feels any meaningful connection with is his dying mother. One might draw a connection between his time with his mother and his encounter with the young French woman as Remarque’s commentary on how femininity offers a counterbalance to the deeply masculine urge to wage war. By the end of the novel, Paul has watched all his friends die and despairs about his future. In October of 1918, shortly before Armistice Day and the conclusion of the First World War, Paul dies. The novel reads, “Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” (Remarque 291).
From the beginning of the novel, Remarque is very clear about his goal with the novel. “It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war,” Remarque writes as a note of introduction (Remarque, v). As mentioned, Remarque strove to remove the romanticism typically inherent in most war narratives. Published a decade after the end of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front reflects many of the sentiments felt by those of the Lost Generation. Remarque’s account as told through Paul Bäumer illuminates the sense of despair of those who came of age in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Their wartime experiences shattered their hopeful expectations for the future and left an entire generation disoriented (Bond, 28). Those who had survived the war, that is. More than 38 million people died because of the conflict (both military and civilian) and the ensuing Spanish flu epidemic, profoundly impacting the global population (Macleod & Purseigle, 215).
One should also consider the ways in which All Quiet on the Western Front addressed the dangerous nationalism which was still simmering in Europe after the First World War had ended. Adolph Hitler wouldn’t rise to become the leader of Germany for another five years after the novel’s publication, but the sentiments which helped in his political ascent were ever present. Germany suffered greatly after the war and many sought some sort of scapegoat for that suffering (Macleod & Purseigle, 218). Much of the public rhetoric about nationalism and patriotism which emerged in the late 1920s mirrored that which was bandied about in the years leading up to the First World War—and that which compelled Paul and his friends to join the war effort. Remarque’s commentary serves as a potent reminder for both the emptiness of such rhetoric as well as a dire warning of what will follow. It’s no wonder All Quiet on the Western Front was among the many novels assigned to the kindling heap during Hitler’s administration (Macleod and Purseigle, 218).
Of those who did survive the struggle, Remarque’s novel sheds light on the conditions which cause shell shock, or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. While medical professionals in the present more clearly understand the effects the conditions of war have on people (violent bombardment, lack of sleep, constant combat, etc.), the symptoms displayed by affected soldiers were often attributed to psychological or physical weakness or “lack of moral fiber” (Martin, 12). This suggests a deeper social construct in which bravery and eagerness to fight are an inherently male quality and those who do not display such qualities must be defective (Brice, 239). The ways in which pacifists and those who could not enter military service were attacked as cowards supports this severely problematic notion. In removing the notion of glory from the narrative and detailing the horrific atrocities soldiers faced in the trenches, All Quiet on the Western Front takes the idea of the defective man to task. Remarque presents an alternative in which the conditions of war (filthy trenches, constant destruction and killing, disease, lice infestations, etc.) strip men of their humanity and turn them into animals who can no longer recognize their own dignity. All Quiet on the Western Front, thus, helped start the conversation about the human toll of war and how to address the very real ways in which soldiers suffer.
With or without the proper historic context, I think All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless read which provides powerful commentary on modern warfare. Although warfare today is far more technologically advanced than it was a century ago, it is important to consider that the First World War was the first mechanized war. Remarque’s narrative presents readers with ethical quandaries we are still considering as war wages in various Middle Eastern regions. As an example, just as chemical warfare was debated in the early twentieth century, we debate the use of drone in warfare in the early twenty-first. Additionally, the novel impels readers to consider the place of war in modern society—just as various political factions do in the present. All Quiet on the Western Front remains a relevant consideration of war and humanity and will remain relevant for some time to come.
- Bond, Brian. The Unquiet Western Front: Britain’s Role in Literature and History. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Brice, Amelia. “The Great War and Public Health.” Perspectives in Public Health. September 1, 2014. Vol. 134, No. 5: 239. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1757913914545569.
- Macleod, Jenny and Pierre Purseigle. Uncovered Fields: Perspectives in First World War Studies. Brill, 2004.
- Martin, Travis L. “ “Working Through” Societal Trauma in the Last Flight, Heroes for Sale, and All Quiet on the Western Front.” War, Literature, and the Arts. January 1, 2016. 1-14. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://wlajournal.com/wlaarchive/28/martin.pdf.
- Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Little, Brown, and Company, 1929.