“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque was born in Osnabröck, Germany, into a lower-middle-class family in 1898. When he was 18 years old, in 1916, he joined the German army to fight in World War 1. There he was badly wounded and had to go back home. Even though he had to leave the heart of battle, he had spent enough time in the war for it to leave an impression on him. 10 years after the war was ended, in 1928, he published his most famous work, “All Quiet on the Western Front”. His dislike of the war shows clearly throughout his novel, and it was even banned in Germany during Hitler’s regime. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a novel written on the first world war, and his presence there in his earlier days makes it a most realistic piece of work.
Remarque has chosen to write the book in present tense, although it changes to past tense in the occasional flashbacks. The story is told to us through the eyes of the main character, Paul, and is therefore mostly written in first person.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a book about Paul Bäumer and a group of his young schoolmates, all joining the war with their hearts full of patriotism. Their patriotism lessens somewhat, however, during the brutal basic training, and disappears completely when they see the terrible injuries suffered on the frontline. They realize the whole reason why they are fighting in this war, nationalism and patriotism, are simply empty clichés. To them, the war becomes meaningless.
Paul goes more and more into this line of thinking throughout the book. This shows clearly later in the story, when Paul receives seventeen days of leave, and goes home to see his family. He arrives at home, and finds out his mother is dying from cancer. At this leave, Paul also spends time at a training camp near a group of Russian prisoners of war. He becomes friends with some of the prisoners, and thus realises they are ordinary men, just like himself and his former schoolmates. This also makes him wonder how war can make enemies of people who otherwise would have nothing against each other.
At this leave, Paul also realizes he has become a man of war. He feels that he no longer belongs in the place he used to live. He feels awkward and estranged in his own hometown. It is also hard for him to talk about his traumatic experiences in the trenches. He starts to wonder what he will do if the war ever ends. All he knows is war. It would be impossible for him to go back to school now, and he would not have a job to go back to, either.
Another important happening later in Bäumers novel, is Paul’s first real close encounter with the “enemy”. In a battle, Paul is separated from the rest of his company and has to take cover in a shell hole. As the German forces retreat and the French advance, Paul soon lies in the middle of enemy forces rushing forward. A French soldier jumps into the hole, and Paul instinctively draws his field-knife and kills the man. The Frenchman dies a slow and painful death. Trapped in the shell-hole with this dead man, Paul becomes hunted by his own deed. He becomes sad and full of regret at having hurt the poor man. He then looks through the man’s belongings, and finds the soldier’s name was Gérard Duval and that he had a wife and a child at home. The dead soldier is no longer just a dead soldier. He has become a dead father and husband. And Paul has become a murderer.
As the war goes on, one by one, all of Paul’s friends are killed, until only his best friend, Kat, is still alive. Paul and Kat have developed a special bond throughout the story, and are now real brothers in arms. In the end, Kat is wounded, and Paul is forced to carry him to the dressing station. Kat is bleeding too much for Paul to leave him and get a stretcher, so Paul sets out for the station carrying him on his shoulders. Although shells are crashing down all around him, Paul finally reaches the dressing station. He falls over from exhaustion, only to find Kat is dead. A stray fragment from one of the shells has hit him in the head and killed him. Paul’s dearest friend is now dead. He has nothing left of his life. All he knows is the war, and he has no hope left for the war to end. The book ends with Paul dying, and the final words of the book are these: “He had sunk forwards and was lying on the ground as if asleep. When they turned him over , you could see that he could not have suffered long – his face wore an expression that was so composed that it looked as if he was almost happy that it had turned out that way.”
Being the person who is telling the story in “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Paul Bäumer is certainly the most central character in Remarques’ book. Throughout the novel, we can see how Paul gradually becomes less human in his behavior and mind. His memories shows that Paul used to be a sensitive, young man before the war started. He loved his family, and even wrote poetry. In the war, he is constantly forced to act and feel in a way opposing his personality. In the horrors of the war, Paul, like other soldiers, learns to disconnect his mind from his feelings, and so keeping his emotions at bay. It is a soldier’s only way to preserve his sanity and survive. Him blocking out his feelings eventually makes him unable to mourn his dead friends, and when he goes home at his leave, he is unable to express his feelings about the war or even talk about it. He does feel sad about his mother having cancer, though. Because Paul is extremely sensitive, he is somewhat less able than many of his fellow soldiers to detach his emotions. Kats’ death is also an example of this. When Paul is in battles, he is also able to become more of a “human animal” than a real human, capable of relying on his animal instincts and in that way survive. Paul is representing a whole generation destroyed by the war sharing the same experiences as him. This generation is by many called “the lost generation”. It was truly a generation lost to the world. They lived a normal childhood, but that was all they got. At a young age they were lost to the war. Many died, and the few who returned were destroyed by the war and had nothing to return to. This is part of the message Remarque is using his novel to tell the world.
There are many themes in “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Most, naturally, are tied to war. One quite obvious point is the horrors of war. Remarque was one of the first to write about war without romanticizing it. His description of the war clearly shows how terrible it was. He also brings up what war does to the men who fight in it. Having lived through it, Remarque gives a good description of both the physical and psychological aspects of the damage the war does on men.
Remarque also brings up nationalism and its downsides. Paul and his young schoolmates were seduced by the ideas of nationalism, and joined the war. Later, they realized nationalism is really a hollow, hypocritical ideology used to recruit people to the war. When Paul and the other soldiers fight in the war, they do not fight for their country; they kill to keep from being killed. They do not see the opposing armies as their real enemies. Their real enemies are the people in power in their own nation, forcing men to fight in a war which is not really their own.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a great novel, well known all over the world. Even though it is almost eighty years old, “All Quiet on the Western Front” has lost none of its force. War is a topic that will never be worn out, and no one describes war the way Remarque did. “All Quiet on the Western Front” has definitely changed my perspective on all wars. Even though we see the war from a german point of view, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a novel speaking for all people who have had to live through a war, or died in one. I think “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a book that should be read by everyone. Seeing how terrible war really is, maybe we can learn not to make the same mistakes again. Hopefully, we will all learn someday.
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