In the final weeks of 2015 I finally decided that it was time to turn over a new leaf and begin reading a lot more classic novels. I began with one whose concept I had been intrigued by for some time, the translated edition of Im Westen nicht Neues by Erich Maria Remarque, better known as All Quiet on the Western Front.
Interestingly the most renowned aspect of this book is the English title, which has become part of everyday talk. But its 12 chapters tell a compelling story of a German soldier and his comrades as they struggle through the First World War and all eventually lose their lives.
It was really fascinating to read about one of the world wars from the German point of view, as living in the UK what I’ve seen and heard centres around the spirit and patriotism of the Allied Forces and their incredible sacrifices, so reading the (albeit fictional) experiences of Paul Baumer gave me exposure to a fresh perspective.
The novel begins with an opening monologue which claims that it was written on behalf of ‘a generation of men who were destroyed by war’. The psychological struggles of Baumer when he returns to his family on leave echo those sentiments especially, and really hit home to me as a reader, while many of the German troops openly question the purpose of their being at war.
In the end, after his best and most reassuring comrade Katzinsky is killed in heavy gunfire, it is as if Baumer is relieved to welcome death. Indeed, when he does lose his life somewhat ambiguously in the short final chapter, it is said to be ‘as though almost glad the end has come’.
Remarque does a fine job throughout the novel in getting the reader to identify with all the German troops portrayed, and to really care about them. This is done chiefly through the way in which he uses the first person to describe Baumer’s range of emotions and how war changes him as a person physically and mentally. Although war on that scale may never be seen again between the most developed of nations, it is still relevant today as even those that survive 21st century conflicts have problems when returning to normal society.
The book was written by Remarque in order to highlight what had happen to a lost generation, but its intentions were misinterpreted by some to be passionate rhetoric in favour of pacifism and that caused problems for the author as he soon became a target of vitriol for the Nazi party as their growth began.
It has to be remembered that back then, novels, motion pictures and other published works had the potential to be hugely influential and divisive in equal measure, and used as political tools. All Quiet on the Western Front was publically burned as it was seen to be at odds with Nazi party’s ideology.
As for Remarque, it took some time for him to earn the great respect he deserved as someone who shed light on an under-appreciated issue surrounding the Great War, and as his stock decreased in Germany he fled to Switzerland where he spent much of the rest of his life.