With the recent sad passing of Harry Patch "The last Tommy", who was the last man alive to have fought in the trenches of the Great War, I feel saddened that the last living link with my grandfathers generation has been lost. He will be buried in the village of Monkton Combe a short drive away from where I live, making it doubly poignant. Harry didn't speak about the war until he was a hundred years old, such was the mark it left on him. In his last years he was outspoken against war and its waste. That war to end all wars almost annihilated a generation and left mental scars on the survivors that would never heal.
There were two things that I did with my children out of respect for that generation. I took them all to see the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium with the names of the dead engraved on it. On his first trip out of the country since the war this was the first place Harry Patch visited. If you have not done this, then do it. The second thing I did for my son was to read him Erich Maria Remarque's story "All Quiet on the Western Front". It was a bit too violent for my daughters who are of a more delicate disposition. My son often reminds me that he still has the mental scars from the book. He still asks what sort of father would do that to his son. But he remembers it vividly. I have read it three times now and it is a book that is as powerful today as when it was first published in book form in 1929 when it caused a sensation. It is the daddy of all the anti war books.
We see the war through the eyes of an innocent and naive young soldier Paul Baumer who is fresh from school. After some initial training he is sent to the front where he witnesses the realities of trench warfare. Life becomes very cheap indeed, but Paul adapts and learns how to survive. He sees friends killed and he kills himself, and in so doing becomes dehumanized. The physical and psychological effects of the war on these men are shown graphically. The characters from the novel seem so real. The old veteran Katczinsky who takes the young lads under his wing. Himmelstoss the ex postman turned training corporal who gives the recruits such a hard time in training. A tyrant who is later exposed on the front as a frightened coward. War does that to men. There is no hiding place and the inner soul is exposed. The ending of the story is a blissful release and so very sad.
The words "All Quiet on the Western Front" have so embedded themselves in the national psche that they have become common slang for not much is happening. Remarque was well qualified to write the book as he served as a German soldier in the trenches. The book and its anti war message was hated by Hitler who burnt most copies. Remarque was forced to leave his own country. Sadly his message has been lost on the warmongers. One only has to look at the long list of conflicts since the war. "Only the dead have seen the end of war". Harry Patch and his generation will see no more wars. May they rest in peace. If you do nothing else visit the Menin gate or read this book. Essential reading.
on 17 September 2011
Having read all 72 previous reviews there were one or two in which the reviewer stated that Remarques book in one way or another did its part to make WWII possible. Being a German born in 1966, with family members - as I found out later (not by being told but by asking unwelcomed questions) - being faithful followers of the impersonated evil during the 1930s and 1940s, in this country's darkest years, I'd like to give a comment and I hope my English is not failing me.
Remarque did not mean to write an anti-war book. As a matter of fact he called it "unpolitical". But the very first lines of the book, placed before the first chapter, do put things into perspective. Yet he still insisted that his novel was not written to convince people to oppose war for he said that "everybody is against going to war anyway." He later corrected this misconception of his. In an interview as late as 1963 he revised his original statement: (translated: "I always believed that everybody was against going to war - until I realized there were some folks who do want to go to war, particularly those who don't need to go themselves."
Remarque himself did not go to war in 1917 voluntarily. He only served in the trenches for a few months until he got wounded by shrapnel and got shot through the neck. He was sent to a military hospital where he listened to (and took notes of) the reports of other soldiers who had seen so much more of the war than he did. What he noted was what became the foundation of his book. And this book, although fictional, became what it is today. It has become an anti-war book by accident because it was received as such. Erich Maria Remarque had no intention of making his fellow Germans more peaceful or more aggressive. It was simply a damn good book that so many veterans could claim to be telling their story - on both sides.
If the truth - even a fictional truth - gets people to oppose the war, then this book is indeed an anti-war book, in its function albeit not in its intention. And to claim that the story told - a story which in its deepest sense is so very much humane, paved a literary way to the rise of the Nazis, is perhaps not ridiculous but at least evidence for a profound lack of historical knowledge. When that man came to power in 1933, one of the first things he ordered was the eradication of anti-war books from the shelves of German readers for he was determined to go to war in the foreseeable future. "Im Westen nichts Neues" was burnt at the stakes (NOT a metaphor), it went up in flames in good company with other great German writers from a more honourable time in German history. The Nazis hated it, for it portrayed the "enemy" as another human being - the same sorrows, same hopes, with families, too, and not really an idea of why this terrible war was fought for in the first place - an equal.
This book was published in 1929. Within the same year, it became translated into 26 foreign languages. By now, there exist translations in more than fifty foreign languages. By 2007 it had sold more than 20,000,000 times worldwide. There is a simple reason for that: It appeals to all humanity or rather to the large part that, as Remarque believed, "is against going to war anyway."
On a more personal note: Just six weeks ago I managed to acquire a copy from 1929 via Abebooks. The ad text read that it was in good condition, so I ordered it. It arrived just three days later. When I unwrapped the book I found that it did not look like the original. The first owner must have had it undergo a sort of special treatment. The original cover of cardboard had been replaced by a half leather cover with fine marbled paper. The original binding had been replaced with real gutters and it was in almost perfect condition. It had been "redone" to extend its originally calculated lifespan. The way it is now, it will survive another two hundred years and by doing so make a mockery of the "1000 years" that Adolf Hitler believed his Reich would prosper (after degrading all others peoples except the Germans that is).
This book will live.
on 21 May 2003
This book is so moving and yet, despite the horrors endured on the frontline during WW1, a sense of humour (however grim) is retained throughout, almost to the last few paragraphs. The story is written in the first person narrative, by a young German soldier, Paul Bauer. He is only eighteen when he is pressured by his family, friends and society in general, to enlist and fight at the front. He enters the army, along with 6 other lads he was at school with, each one filled with fresh, lively, optimistic and patriotic thoughts, but within a few months they are all as old men, in mind if not completely in body. Paul and his friends witness such horrors and endure such severe hardship and suffering, that they are unable to even speak about it to anyone but each other. This is a very moving and poignant novel, and the reader is made even more aware of its poignancy in knowing that its author is writing from experience, having suffered greatly as a young man on the frontline, whilst fighting for the Fatherland.
on 11 January 2001
Both the title itself and other reviewers' comments provide you with an overview of the subject matter of this novel so I won't dwell on that. What I would say however is that I disagree with the notion expressed by other reviewers that this book is applicable to any war and supports the notion that all conflicts are futile. (Although I appreciate that the latter was the intention of the author.)
The reason I say this is because the Western Front during WWI was arguably (bar Stalingrad) the ultimate manifestation of a war of attrition at the battlefield level. Plainly and simply the winner was the side which could sustain the greatest number of casualties yet still keep going. Shamelessly, both sides pursued this strategy relentlessly which only serves to make the futility of this particular conflict all the more poignant.
The most moving passages for me are the protagonist thinking back to the bravado of his teacher encouraging his pupils to join up having bought the propaganda hool, link and sinker; the little things in life that are so meaningful to Paul given that they may be the last time he gets to experience them; the period of leave when he returns to his family who could not begin to understand what he has experienced, and above all the description of what it was like waiting in the bunkers while the shells rained down on them, knowing that at any moment the next shell could be for them. The last passage and action both during and after the barrage are truly amazing.
It's been six months since I read this book and thinking about it something has become clear to me. Once you're read this book you're more of a person that you were before. Gushing maybe but true. There is no higher praise than that.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" remains the quintessential anti-war novel. The events depicted in the novel occurred almost a century ago. Remarque was a master, not only at depicting the horrors of trench warfare, which the First World War is most noted for, but also the power relations which accompany war, both within the military, and in society at large. His prose burns. Consider simply the issue of how new recruits are trained: "We became soldiers with eagerness and enthusiasm, but they have done everything to knock that out of us. After three weeks it was no longer incomprehensible to us that a braided postman should have more authority over us than had formerly our parents, our teachers, and the whole gamut of culture from Plato to Goethe...We had fancied our task would be different, only to find we were to be trained for heroism as though we were circus-ponies." Yes, "braided postman."
I first read this work over 40 years ago, before I entered the Army. It proved to be the best "orientation manual" possible for what the military would be like, despite the fact that Remarque depicted the German Army of World War I, and I was in the American Army in Vietnam. There were several passages that I remembered, and they proved to be astonishingly prescient. For example, the manner is which Kat died in the book, and Paul's utter surprise that he was actually dead from such a small wound reflected the first casualty I treated, a Lieutenant who was just so unlucky to have gotten hit where he did. But on this re-read, I was impressed with how many other portions were also relevant. Remarque brilliantly depicted the immense emotional dissonance that Paul experienced on leave, with his fellow citizens of the home front who were always so willing to pat him on the back, and buy him a beer, and then pontificate in their excruciatingly clueless manner about what was needed to "really win this war." And then there are the hospitals, as Remarque says: "A hospital alone shows what war is." The author depicts the suffering of the soldiers, and the sometimes callousness of the staff that could be drawn from the recent news articles on the scandals at Walter Reed Hospital. Remarque even includes the physicians, as he and I would both say, a very slender minority, but nonetheless real, who see the war and their "captive audience" as a wonderful laboratory to experiment - in this book's case it was a surgeon who loved to break feet, in an always failing attempt to cure "flat feet."
War can make a liar out of you. Paul Baumer is home on leave. He knows the agonizing way that Kemmerich died. He has to see his mother, who wants to hear the entire, honest truth. There is no way he can tell her; there is no way that he can say your son died for nothing at all. He has to say: Your son died a hero, and he died instantly. As to the truth: "I will never tell her, she can make mince-meat out of me first. I console her..." In another scene Paul is in a shell crater, a Frenchman also jumps in it, and Paul instinctively has to kill him. From his papers he learns that he is Gerald Duval, a printer. Paul realizes that he is just another poor slob who got caught up in the war, and didn't make it. In the crater, Paul makes a promise to him: "I promise you, comrade. It shall never happen again." As we all know, not only again, but again and again it continues to happen.
Remarque brilliantly depicts the nitty-gritty of war, from the lice to the rats. In his case, much time was spent scrounging for food, which was one of the real differences with the American Army in Vietnam. It might have bland, but the food was always adequate for us. But he is equally adept at addressing the larger issues of why wars occur, and in one scene, after they had been issued new clothes (which were later collected!) for the Kaiser's inspection, the infantrymen ask each other if he could have prevented the war. The conclusion was, no, not him alone, but if only 30 people, those with the power, had said no, there would have been no war. Remarque has an excellent passage, worthy of Pascal's ruminations questioning the right to kill a man because "he lives on the other side of the river." Remarque says: "A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world's condemnation and severest penalty fell, becomes our highest aim... Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil than they are to us."
This book should be a requirement before any student can graduate from high school. Even more so, it should be an essential curriculum item in any journalism school; the last two brief paragraphs explain the title to the book, and that aspiring journalist might hesitate in ever writing: "MACV reported that there was only light and scattered fighting in the Central Highlands." Or, on the Western Front, or in Helmand province.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on December 21, 2009)
on 17 May 2012
This classic piece of war literature is a novel that I really think *must* become part of the history syllabus in today's schools. Based on Remarque's own experiences at the Front, it is a compelling, yet matter of fact look at the true horrors of war. It is also unquestioningly, one of the most poignant and well-written novels I have ever had the privilege of reading.
Told from the perspective of Paul, a German soldier, it recounts the lives of he and his school friends, who are encouraged to join the army once they come of age, at the goading of one of their teachers. Alternating between past and present tense, we learn of the horror of the battlefield and the lives of the men before they became soldiers. The narrative is utterly compelling and really draws the reader into the events- you learn of not only the turmoil of the front, but can also almost sense the smells and sounds and feel the mud of the trenches. There is also a journey undertaken that the reader experiences fully with Paul and his friends- they start off as fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds, with a strong sense of patriotism for their country, yet as the book progresses they become ultimately jaded with the horrors of war. The reader really feels a sense of empathy with the characters as the plot unfolds, and through their own experiences you are given a sense of what they are thinking and feeling and how pointless war actually is.
At times this novel is poignant, at other times sombre, but the prose is always beautiful and infinitely readable. I know this is a story that I will turn to time and time again. If you only have time to read one book this year, then I urge you to please make it this one.
on 10 September 2000
Remarque's macabre, cynical narrative about a soldier behind enemy lines could only really be about one war - World War 1, in the Trenches on the Western Front. His melancholic thoughts, though, could be about any soldier in any war, the utter despair of the soldier, the comradeship of fellow troops, the arrogance of superiors and the gruesome devastation on body and soul of those at the Front. So powerful and vivid that Hitler banned it. A Classic for its cynicism and the State's contempt towards the soldier fighting her war.
on 1 November 1999
This moving novel describes the experiences of ordinary soldiers during the First World War. They are German, but could be of any nationality serving in this futile and viscious conflict.It proves well that we are all the same under the skin and that both courage and fear manifest themselves in all of us.The tragedy is that after all this time, nobody has learned any lessons and that pointless bloodshed seems to be endemic to the human condition. I shall think of this novel with sadness every time I see a politician sitting in the cockpit of a jet grinning as he visits the troops in the next (inevitable) conflict, knowing that those who start the trouble are not the ones who will be taking part personally in the carnage. A must read for EVERYONE.
When I read this brilliant book I felt so many emotions, but I suppose the underlying emotion was sadness. In many ways all schoolboys should be made to read this book, for it depicts war as it is, without all the glamour and hero worship that some books and films portray. I thought birdsong was a great book showing how people change from a traumatic experience, such as World War 1. But all quiet on the western front leaves it for dead in this area in my opinion. I will never forget this incredible educational and wonderful book. I am so glad it was written from the German perspective, because it shows us that underneath all our exterior frames we are the same; we have the same fears and dreams. My last words about this book are read it if you dare the experience will live with you forever.
on 28 April 2011
Excellent Folio Society edition introduced by Geoff Dyer:
"This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war - even those of it who survived the shelling'
Few novels have described the reality of the First World War with such honesty and raw eloquence as All Quiet on the Western Front. The most famous German anti-war novel, it was based on Remarque's own experiences in the trenches. Over a million copies were sold in the year after its first publication in 1929, and an award-winning film adaptation followed in 1930. The book was later banned by the Nazis, who also revoked Remarque's citizenship.
Paul Baumer is 18 when he and his friends enlist, on the urging of a teacher who calls them `young men of iron'. Later Paul remarks: `Young? None of us is more than twenty. But young? Young men? That was a long time ago. We are old now.' Idealistic recruits become caustic, hardened veterans through the daily horrors they witness and the attitudes of the complacent society which, in Paul's view, has brought those horrors about. Some are slow to understand the new situation; one boy takes his physics textbooks to the trenches. The others soon realise they are in a nightmare world, where soldiers march to the front past their own coffins, where bodies can be blown apart in seconds, and where a pair of boots or a piece of bread is more important than any abstract notion of honour or patriotism.
Comradeship is the only solace, and there are jokes and lighter moments, as when the theft of a goose becomes an impromptu feast, but these become fewer as the casualties mount and the trauma intensifies. Remarque charts the mental breakdown and disconnection that takes place in a world that makes no sense, where men are `silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another'. A new introduction by Geoff Dyer places the book in the context of First World War literature written by `suffering victims of a war machine which had taken on a purpose and momentum of its own".
`The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will'
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW