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Harrowing reality of the First World War
Jun 11, 2005 09:25 PM 8170 Views
(Updated Jun 12, 2005 08:51 AM)



“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.” – Erich Maria Remarque (foreword to the book All Quiet on the Western Front)

This book is one of the most compelling accounts of the horrors of a war, not only in terms of destruction of physical bodies of the youth, but also in terms of destroying their very essence of thought.

Remarque uses first person narration to tell us the story of a German soldier Paul Baumer fighting at the western front during the First World War. We are shown life of soldiers at the front through Paul’s sensitive eyes. Remarque has written this book based on his experiences as a soldier and it becomes obvious pretty soon in the novel that Remarque is trying to get certain points across through Paul’s narrative. As a character, Remarque has surpassed himself while creating Paul. Paul is the representative of his generation of young boys who are caught in the clutches of a war they did not create or wish for. Paul is just one of the thousands, though he may be rather more sensitive than many, and he relates his experiences in a matter of fact, yet analytical way.

Remarque has written a book that has been hailed as a classic anti-war novel. This is obviously the truth, but his book is as much about the folly of war as it is about the spark of life during hard times. He describes the great horrors that a soldier must face and many of the instances literally leave tears streaming down your cheeks and yet the common thread that binds the chapters is the doggedness of that spark of life that we all share.

All Quiet on the Western Front is not a memoir, though Remarque has drawn from his own experiences in order to write it. There are no mentions of any specific political or historic events. He does not even use the word enemy too often, rather talking of the allied forces in the terms of ‘the others’ or ‘those on the other side’. I think that this is the reason the book seems and is relevant even today. This is not about some specific folly undertaken by the Kaiser; it is about the universal folly causing raging fires in all places from Bosnia to Kashmir.

The book is a straightforward narrative about life as a soldier. Paul gives us insights into how soldiers rationalize what they do day in and day out. How they survive and the bonds they build amongst themselves. The book has a few memorable scenes of comradeship where Paul and his friend Kat are sitting at night roasting a goose they have just caught, or where they get together to take revenge on their tyrannical superior officer. There are also highly intense episodes of life on the front. Trench warfare and the endless battle for survival have been graphically described. We follow Paul through battle at the front, through a reunion with his dying mother on a journey home on leave, through getting wounded, through treatment and finally to the end, to peace. All through the journey Paul not only gives us glimpses into the reality behind war literature and the actual pain behind the statistics of the dead, but he also takes time to speculate and let us in on his deepest thoughts and fears.

This is what Remarque tells us through Paul about the people who forced the boys to enlist:

“While they were writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater. This didn’t make us into rebels or deserters or turn us into cowards – and they were more than ready to use all of those words – because we loved our country just the same as they did, and so we went bravely into every attack. But now we were able to distinguish things clearly, all at once our eyes had been opened. And we found there was nothing left of their world.”

This book is essential reading for everyone. Just in order that we get to read this side of war. The images made popular in movies and television of soldiers singing and cheerfully going to war to die are a superficial representation of it all. There is so much fear and so much courage and also so much helplessness that goes into fighting. We must see this side of things, if for nothing else, then just so that we consciously understand the futility and folly of war.

Just as a book too, this makes for good reading. It is obviously rather heavy reading and more on the philosophical side, but the prose is consistently good and the structure of the book makes it easy to read. This is not light fiction and definitely not adventurous or anything, but it is a book that one must read in order to add to one’s perspective on life. The unique thing about this book is that it is through the perspective of a young man, almost a boy. Through this, Remarque gives more depth to his arguments and moves us terribly. Let me leave you with one quote that stirred my insides:

“We were eighteen years old, and had just begun to love the world and love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things anymore; we believe in the war.”

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All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Remarque