Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front offers readers a fictional yet accurate account of the life of a common soldier in the trenches during final two years of the First World War. Like the book’s narrator, Paul Baumer, Remarque was a German soldier himself. During the decade following the German defeat, he suffered from depression and a sense of loss. Finally, in 1928, he wrote Im Westen nichts Neues, translated into English in 1929 as All Quiet on the Western Front. It quickly became an international best-seller. Soon after the publication of the book, the American-made film of All Quiet on the Western Front was released to international acclaim.
Response to Remarque’s work was not all positive, however. In Germany, older people detested the negative portrait of the war and of their generation. In 1933, the German Nazi regime banned and burned the book, as Hans Wagener notes in his Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Even the showing of the film met with controversy in Berlin; subsequently, the film was banned in Germany.
Paul Fussell notes that the 1928 publication of Remarque’s work coincided with the first memoirs of the war written by veterans who wanted the civilian population to know “the truth.” Likewise, Brian Rowley partially attributes the success of All Quiet on the Western Front to its timing: ”The interval of ten years since the war was short enough for the memories of participants not to have faded, but long enough for the ex-servicemen to have recovered from their immediate post-war desire to forget.”
Remarque’s book drew on his first-hand knowledge of the war. He saw in others of his own generation the same hopelessness and lack of roots that he himself felt. Writing the book was his way of speaking for this generation. In a brief preface to All Quiet on the Western Front he writes, ”This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Although Remarque’s book is filled with death, it is not intended as a memorial to the eight million who died. Rather, for Remarque, the real tragedy of the war was in the destruction of the survivors, men who returned home from the war utterly changed and unable to resume their roles in society. As Christine R. Barker and R. W. Last write, “What Remarque is asserting in his novel is that, so extreme were the experiences of Baumer and his comrades that they were utterly devasted by their recognition of the discontinuity of life and the absence of any ultimate meaning in the universe.” Through the setting, the structure, the tone of narration and dialogue, the descriptions of modem warfare, and the use of irony, Remarque demonstrates the ways in which the First World War profoundly changed the lives of a whole generation.
Remarque sets All Quiet on the Western Front during the last two years of the war. Germany’s strength wanes while that of the Allieds grows from the American entry into the war in 1917. The location Remarque gives his story is the Western Front, along the German lines in France . However, although Remarque’s story is that of a German soldier, his descriptions of the trenches and of the battles cross national boundaries. The tense, claustrophobic hours in the trenches waiting for the battle to begin; the huge rats stealing food from the soldiers; the corpses lying mutilated on the battlefield; the daily horrors of war taking on an air of normalcy: these are the experiences of all soldiers of the First World War.
As noted above, the first person narrator of the story is Paul Baumer, a young German foot soldier. Paul tells his story in plain language, short sentences, and in the present tense. Remarque structures the book in short episodes, with periods of in tense, horrific battles alternating with episodes of life at the rear in recovery. The overall effect of this contrast is to make the stark details of life at the front even more disturbing than they would be otherwise. Further, the fragmentary structure mirrors the soldiers’ experiences as they shuttle between the relative peace and safety of the rear and the horror of the front. Just as Paul experiences the war in fragments, the reader comes to an understanding of the war through the slow accumulation of the fragmented episodes. In many ways, the structure of the book resembles a collage, a work of art created by pasting together small, finely detailed vignettes to create a whole picture of the war.
The narrator’s voice is a recorder’s voice, the voice of someone trying to convey the truth without embellishment. As the troops move up to the front, for example, Paul tells us, “On the way we pass a shelled out school-house. Stacked up against its longer side is a high double wall of unpolished, brand-new coffms. They still smell of resin, and pine, and the forest. There are at least a hundred.” He does not dwell on the implications of the coffins; he merely reports their presence. Paul’s voice is emotionally flat. Even when his close friend Milller dies, he does not reveal his inner feelings: “Muller is dead. Someone shot him pointblank in the stomach with a Verey light. He lived for half an hour, quite conscious, and in terrible pain.”
Likewise, the dialogue between the men never becomes maudlin or sentimental. The men keep their fears and deep thoughts to themselves. In one instance, Paul must spend the night in a shell crater with a Frenchman he has killed with his bare hands. The man’s painful death affects him greatly. Shortly after Kat and Albert find him, Paul tries to explain to them how he felt. They stop him from speaking:
“‘You don’t need to lose any sleep over your affair,’ nods Albert. And now I hardly understand it myself anymore. “‘It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,’ I say. ‘After all, war is war.”
One notable exception to the generally emotionless narration is during Paul’s last night at home during his leave. Paul shares with the reader not only the controlled, outward responses he gives to his mother but also his internal suffering at the parting. Yet neither he nor his mother will put into words the agony each feels. “Here I sit,” Paul thinks, “and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it.”
Remarque also includes descriptions of the new warfare to which the soldiers of the First World War were exposed. This warfare included the first use of machine guns, tanks, sophisticated explosives, airplanes, and poison gas. Technology outstripped tactics, causing battle losses on a greater scale than Europeans had ever seen. All Quiet on the Western Front moves the impersonal technology of war to a personal level. Through Paul’s eyes, the reader is able to witness the technology on a small scale, through one man’s experience. For example, when the French launch gas canisters into the German trenches, there is a scramble to put on the gas masks. Then the wait: “These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death: is it air-tight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots.”
Although the book accurately portrays the experiences of soldiers under extreme pressure, All Quiet on the Western Front is not a history or a memoir of the events of the war, as Modris Eksteins points out. Rather, the events Paul relates serve to underscore the broader theme: the senselessness of all wars. Remarque effectively uses irony as a means of driving home this point. The irony is often bitter. For example, when a wounded messenger dog lies a hundred yards from the trenches, Berger decides to go and either “to fetch the beast in or to shoot it.” In the attempt, he is killed with a wound to the pelvis, and the man who is sent to fetch Berger is also shot. In another instance, early in the book, Paul and Muller go to visit their friend Kemmerich, who has had a leg amputated. His most valuable possession is his pair of fine leather boots, boots that are useless now because” … even if he should get better, he would be able to use only one-they are no use to him.” Muller inherits the boots; when he is killed, he bequeaths the boots to Paul. “I wear them, for they fit me quite well,” Paul writes. As readers, we know the irony of this inheritance, something that Paul does not know himself: the acquisition of the boots is a clear signal that he is the next to die. Finally, Paul’s death itself is bitterly ironic. He falls in the autumn of 1918, just weeks before the Armistice. Paul dies not in a big battle, but rather “on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: “All quiet on the Western Front.”
The closing lines of the novel are doubly ironic, however. We recall that Remarque opens his book with a promise to tell the story of those who have survived the war and have been destroyed by it. Because he dies, Paul is obviously not one of the survivors whose story Remarque promises to tell. Rather, Remarque grants Paul death, but not the horrid, slow death of the French printer, or of the young recruits splattered against the trenches. “Turning him over,” the nameless narrator reports, “one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” For Remarque, this seems to be the ultimate irony: that in the senselessness and brutality of war, there is something much worse than death, and that is survival.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Erich Maria Remarque, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998
Diane Henningfeld in an essay for Novels for Students. Gale, 1998.