All Quiet on the Western Front (AQWF) is a fictional account of German soldier Paul Baumer’s time on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel was first published in German in 1928 and in English translation in 1929.
The story unfolds in episodes as Baumer and his comrades move between the horrors of the front lines, and behind the lines where they seek “the two things a soldier needs for contentment” good food and rest. Pressured to sign up by a school teacher, they resent the rough basic training, then learn quickly the real lessons of survival in the war zone.
Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because that is the only thing which brings us through safely, so we turn into wags and loafers when we are resting. We can do nothing else, it is a sheer necessity. We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they might be ornamental enough in peace-time, would be out of place here. (ch VII)
Yet we do get a sense of Baumer’s insights and feelings: clueless old men send young men to war; comrades become family for whom you are willing to risk your life; enemies could easily be friends; older soldiers have another life to go home to, but those who signed up as teens are lost and cut off from their old lives and the older generation. We see his connection and compassion to his comrades and to the Russians in the enemy prison camp. We also see his difficulties in connecting with his family and past life while on leave.
I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading AQWF in school. Isn’t it on every curriculum? Since then, I‘ve avoided “war novels” as my reading of choice. I expected not to like this book. But this project would hardly be complete without AQWF, so I read it early to get it out of the way. (My mother’s admonishments to finish my main course before getting dessert have apparently spilled over to other aspects of my life!) To my surprise, Remarque and Baumer drew me in. Some detractors question the authenticity of the novel. Regardless, Remarque powerfully recounts the common experience of “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war,” no matter what side they fought on. It earns its reputation as a great war novel and a great anti-war novel.
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