All Quiet on the Western Front
From Modernism Lab Essays
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was first published in German as Im Westen Nichts Neues in 1928. It is one of the most widely read and well known novels to emerge from the First World War and has elicited both strong support and strong criticism for its portrayal of the experiences of that war's common soldier. To this day, the novel continues to be part of curriculums at all levels in both Germany and the United States.
All Quiet on the Western Front describes the experiences of Paul Bäumer, a soldier in the German army of World War I. The novel opens with Paul already on the front lines. It includes the back story of how Paul and his classmates were persuaded to volunteer by their high school teacher, Kantorek. They went through basic training, which they hated, under the despicable Sergeant Himmelstoss. Many of Paul's classmates die or are injured shortly after reaching the front, notably Franz Kemmerich.
Paul’s comrades also include the non-students Tjaden, Haie Westhus, Detering, and Kat, who all die in the course of the novel. The story concludes with Paul’s own death at the hands of a French sniper on a day near the end of the war. The official report on the day was “All quiet on the Western Front”.
The novel switches quickly between various scenes of life on the front lines, including routine shellings, attacks and counter attacks, gas attacks, being pulled back from the front, camp life, eating, recreation, and the general day-to-day experience of life in the trenches.
One key episode describes Paul’s experience in the military hospital while recovering from wounds. During this time he has time to think and reflect on the war and its effects. Another crucial scene shows Paul going home on leave. The people at home have a conception of the war that differs from the experience at the front.
At another point, Paul guards a group of Russian prisoners. Another time he is stuck for an entire night in no-man’s land in a foxhole with a French soldier who he has stabbed and killed. These two experiences impress on Paul the similarity between the soldiers on the two sides, how they are only enemies as a matter of chance and because of orders from above.
Paul is the last of his friends to die. Paul is thus left alone and ponders the random nature of war and the helpless position of the individual soldier constantly faced with death. His recognition of his instinctive drive to survive, despite the fact that he cannot think of what he is surviving for, puts him eerily at peace, just before he himself is killed.
Remarque was born into a lower middle class Catholic family in Osnabrück. He was in the midst of training to become a teacher when he was drafted into the army in November, 1916. He was put through boot camp near Osnabrück and in Saxony and then sent to Flanders. There he served as a sapper, building trenches, until he was wounded by shrapnel in July of 1917.
Remarque spent the next fifteen months in a hospital in Duisberg. He was released in October of 1918, but was never actually sent back to the front, because the war ended on November 11. He wrote All Quiet on the Western Front in 1928, mainly as an attempt to combat his post-war depression (Wagner, 9).
While some of Paul’s personal life--his butterfly collecting, his sickly mother and stern father, as well as some war experiences--are based off Remarque’s own life, All Quiet on the Western Front is not a biographical novel. While exposed to various war experiences, Remarque never actually engaged in combat himself; he was only shot at. Paul’s personal experiences are a composite of Remarque’s own experiences and those of other soldiers that he witnessed second hand or heard while recovering in hospital (Wagner, 12).
Although All Quiet on the Western Front was and remains hugely popular in terms of sales, it received highly mixed reviews from critics. It was banned and burned by the Nazis, who were against anything that might call into question their conception of the German soldier as the embodiment of national glory, bravery, and love of the fatherland. The book was later banned and burned and condemned as “the literary betrayal of the soldiers of the Great War."
However, objections to Remarque’s portrayal of the German army personnel during World War I were not limited to the Nazis. Dr. Karl Kroner objected to Remarque’s depiction of the medical personnel as being inattentive, uncaring, or absent from frontline action (Barker and Last, 36). Dr. Kroner was specifically worried that the book would perpetuate German stereotypes abroad that had subsided since the First World War. He offered the following clarification: “People abroad will draw the following conclusions: if German doctors deal with their own fellow countrymen in this manner, what acts of inhumanity will they not perpetuate against helpless prisoners delivered up into their hands or against the populations of occupied territory?” (Barker and Last, 37). The horrifying answer to this question would come within decades.
A fellow patient of Remarque’s in the military hospital in Duisberg objected to the negative depictions of the nuns and patients, and of the general portrayal of soldiers: “There were soldiers to whom the protection of homeland, protection of house and homestead, protection of family were the highest objective, and to whom this will to protect their homeland gave the strength to endure any extremities” (Barker and Last, 37-38).
These criticisms suggest that perhaps experiences of the war and the personal reactions of individual soldiers to their experiences may be more diverse than Remarque portrays them; however, it is beyond question that Remarque gives voice to a side of the war and its experience that was overlooked or suppressed at the time. This perspective is crucial to understanding the true effects of World War I. The evidence can be seen in the lingering depression that Remarque and many of his friends and acquaintances were suffering a decade later.
In contrast, All Quiet on the Western Front was trumpeted by pacifists as an anti-war book (Barker and Last, 38). Remarque makes a point in the opening statement that the novel does not advocate any political position, but is merely an attempt to describe the experiences of the soldier (Wagner, 11).
The main artistic criticism was that it was a mediocre attempt to cash in on public sentiment. The enormous popularity the work received was a point of contention for some literary critics, who scoffed at the fact that such a simple work could be so earth-shattering. Much of this literary criticism came from Dr. Salomo Friedländer, who wrote a parody Vor Troja Nichts Neues. Friedländer’s criticism's were mainly personal in nature--he attacked Remarque as being ego-centric and greedy (Barker and Last, 41-3).
These criticisms, however, ignore the fact thatRemarque is not simply relating his own experiences to anyone who will listen. He is trying to create a broader picture of the experience of the typical soldier. This is achieved not only through Paul, the main character, but through the other characters as well, who together represent the patchwork of people that made up the rank and file of the German army during World War I. Remarque publicly stated that he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front for personal reasons, not for profit, as Friedländer’s ha claimed (Barker and Last, 41).
All Quiet on the Western Front is often ascribed to the school of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or “new objectivity,” which was popular in the post-war Weimar era. This fits with the highly objective, realistic style of the narration. This style attempts to replicate the thoughts and experiences of a soldier during the First World War within the context of that time. The text removes explicit references to later events or foresight towards post-war realizations about the war.
The book is explicitly graphic in language and detail, which is also a characteristic of the Neue Sachlichkeit. It is meant to shock the audience with the horror of war. This fits with Remarque’s intention of accurately replicating the soldier’s experience at the most objective level (Murdoch, 37).
Besides using highly descriptive language, Paul uses the first person plural, “we,” throughout much of the novel. This further emphasizes that Paul is supposed to be more than just an individual soldier, but is representative of each and every individual soldier, whose experiences would be similar (Murdoch, 35).
- ↑ Hans Wagner, Understanding Erich Maria Remarque (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 2, 3.
- ↑ Christine R. Barker and Rex William Last, Erich Maria Remarque (New York: Barnes &amp; Noble Books, 1979), 32-33.
- ↑ Brian Murdoch, The Novels of Erich Maria Remarque: Sparks of Life (Rochester, NY: Camden House 2006), 44.