“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.”
- Erich Maria Remarque
We are all used to talking about the horrors faced by British soldiers during the First World War, and we can automatically sympathise with the brave men who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the trenches from 1914-1918. Though it is rare to hear the story from a German’s perspective.
Erich Maria Remarque’s poignant novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, tells the tale of Paul Baumer, a young man on the brink of adulthood, living in wartime Germany.
Paul enlists to fight, goaded by his pompous schoolmaster to defend the Fatherland. But what he perceives to be a glorious battle couldn’t be further from reality. Upon arrival at the front, Paul and his friends are immediately under fire, with his friend Kemmerich soon in hospital, destined to die.
The loss Paul faces only leaves him open to further heartache. He witnesses innocent boys, some as young as fifteen, dying upon the battlefield, being brutally dismembered and horrifically disfigured before his eyes.
As the novel progresses, we see Paul return to his home on leave. When he enters the door, he cannot help but cry, for his home is no longer there, but at the front with his few remaining friends. Remarque’s stunning portrayal of Paul perfectly encapsulates the fragile mental state faced by many young men returning to their normal lives after the war. He is unable to comprehend his life after armistice, and cannot face even his own mother, as it simply brings him too much pain.
A highlight of the novel would have to be the moment Paul comes face to face with his first kill. As he hides in a crater in No-Man’s Land, he must play dead whilst French soldiers run over his safe haven. It is only when he revives himself that he makes his mistake.
He stabs a French soldier, frightened by his sudden appearance, only to have to watch the man die an extremely slow, agonising death. Paul has never had to face his victims dying before. He becomes increasingly distraught, haunted by the man’s strained breathing and dying cries.
Overcome with guilt, he tries to save the soldier, whispering ‘camerade’ (comrade in French), trying to comfort him in his final moments. The soldier passes away before he can be helped, and the sight of this event further degenerates Paul’s sanity.
Remarque beautifully illustrates the nature of a war-torn soldier here. We see Paul, representative of a young man cruelly corrupted by war, show his capability of empathy for his supposed enemy – a small shred of hope in a world which is effectively crumbling around him.
Put simply, All Quiet on the Western Front is an incredible book, which discusses the long-term psychological damage inflicted upon soldiers – from both sides of the trenches. An emotional, thought-provoking read, this is a book which will stay with you long after you finish the last page.
All Quiet on the Western Front is available from all good bookstores, from £7.99