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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Why It's a Masterpiece (Week 19)

By Annie KapurPublished 8 days ago Updated 8 days ago 7 min read
Top Story - July 2024
From: Amazon

Erich Maria Remarque is possibly best known for creating one of the most hard-hitting novels about the First World War ever written. Published on the 29th of January, 1929 - just over a decade after the ending of the war, the original title translated from the German is actually ‘In the West, nothing new’. A descriptor of extreme mental trauma on the Western Front, this book details how it creates a ripple effect leading to detachment with all life upon return.

First published within a newspaper almost in the few months before the 1929 book publication, this book and its sequel were among the novels burned by Nazi Germany and banned in the country at the time. In 1930, there was an American film adaptation regarded by many as one of the greatest films ever made. It ended up winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The remake of 2022 also did respectively quite well.

At the time of the book’s release though, it was still a horrific memory in the minds of many middle-aged people who had, in their younger days, served on the front lines of the German army. The film serves as the shocking reminder that we should never disregard those with PTSD from war. An absolutely devastating novel, many have referred to it as utterly terrifying.

Plot

From: Amazon

Paul is a German soldier on the Western Front during the First World War. Before this he lived with his family in a nice German village and attended school. Under the inspiration of a school teacher, he signs up for the army shortly after the beginning of the war and goes to a training camp. He eventually becomes friends with new people as the others of his class are in all kinds of different places in the army and eventually, he meets some schoolmates on the Western Front.

Paul and his school friends engage in the war and suffer the terrifying conditions of trench warfare. Battles over small and insignificant pieces of land are gained and lost without the battles themselves being important enough to have a name. This is a horrifying part of the novel as we learn about the true conditions of the war both physically and mentally impacting the soldiers.

Paul realises his lack of belonging upon returning home. He doesn’t recognise the place anymore and finds his passion for literature and speeches completely eradicated by the war. He finds people there stupid for telling him about their war techniques even though they have never been to war themselves. The only person he connects with is his mother, she is dying. He concludes he should not have returned home.

Paul returns to the Front and unites with his friends. He goes on to kill a Frenchman in combat and watches as the man dies. Paul is immediately upset by what he’s done and asks for forgiveness from the man’s dead body. His friends assure him it’s just part and parcel of war and though they hate the rationing, they are relieved to find out they are going to a nearby town for a bit rather than returning to the trenches. As they are there, Paul and Albert are wounded - Albert has his leg amputated as Paul soon returns to war.

The men eventually realise they are fighting to delay an armistice and though the Americans have joined the war, it makes little difference. The Germans were poorly equipped beforehand and morale is very, very low. Paul witnesses his friends die one by one and starts to lose his will to live. He comments on the fact that peace might be coming soon but there is no hope or happiness beyond the war.

On a peaceful day a month before the armistice, Paul is killed. The ending is a tragic reminder of the follies of war - his corpse’s face seemed almost glad to die.

Into the Book

From: Amazon

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a book mainly about the physical and psychological torment of war. Showcasing the brutality in various ways from injury and death to despondency and isolation, this book was meant to counteract the romanticisation of war, especially one as deadly and horrific as World War One. Throughout the text we get different references to different torments regarding war. For example: when Paul returns home from the front only to be completely isolated in his mental state from his family and friends. He regards himself as a loner, loses his hopes and dreams, loses his passions and ultimately, loses his soul. Looking at the technological advances as well means that we can see why someone like Paul would be sickened by the war. He has not experienced these gruesome new mechanisms of death and not seen them used on the battlefield (or even heard about them anywhere else). But all of a sudden we have horrific gas attacks, machines guns in every direction and the dreaded trenches. There is a terror that underpins the novel’s reaction to the First World War that clearly comes through in Paul’s loss of self. It is both an attack on the body and the soul.

“A man cannot realise that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out.”

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

No Man’s Land is one of the big symbols in “All Quiet on the Western Front” as trench warfare encompasses the torment of the novel. This is one of the most important aspects of the book because it represents that bridge between the two armies who are basically experiencing the exact same thing. This nationalist rejection from being trapped in a hole whilst taking fire is symbolism for Paul’s loss of hope as well. He becomes less and less interested in winning the war and more concerned with surviving. This happens especially after Paul kills the Frenchman. The enemy of all people therefore, is simply the war itself and the entire idea of war. This idea is explored through the horrific conditions of the trenches on both sides, the psychological torment of being trapped and the idea that one can die in the trenches without being shot dead by enemies. Instead, they can suffer and die through multiple diseases and all of these are ultimately meaningless in how life is lost.

“It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.”

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

The sheer gore of the novel is quite intense for a war novel even when it’s about World War One. Every single battle has some sort of sheer violence and each battle scene is gory as hell. Men have quite disgusting wounds and when they end up in hospitals without much sanitation and are left untreated from overcrowding. The desensitising to violence is portrayed perfectly through that singular scene where Paul carries his friend on his back and as this is going, his friend is hit by shrapnel in the head. Death and injury are treated as horrific inconveniences in war as men are viewed as little more than disposables. There is a clear dichotomy between the images of death and violence alongside the numbness that Paul and the other characters feel towards it after a time.

“Our thoughts are clay, they are moulded with the changes of the days;—when we are resting they are good; under fire, they are dead. Fields of craters within and without.”

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Why It’s a Masterpiece

From: Amazon

In 1929, “All Quiet on the Western Front” became the best selling work of fiction in America and even though publishers were worried about its subject matter having lost the interest of the public after around a decade, the dirt, grit and gore in the depictions clearly stirred some more interest towards it. Remarque’s scathing critique is not directed towards any enemy except for war itself as it is meaningless and disgusting and, ultimately because of its depictions of anti-nationalism, the Nazi Party politically burned the novel only regenerating interest in it in other countries.

Though Remarque’s ideas about the war and theories about going to war were quite specific to him and a few others, it was often a suppressed voice at the time that not everyone going to war actually wanted to out of their own volition. Yes, we can acknowledge that there were some - but Remarque gives a voice to the underdogs who were pushed out of the public consciousness in favour of the martyrs for the cause who went in with pride and want.

In Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech, he talks about “All Quiet on the Western Front” as:

“…a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.”

- Bob Dylan, The Nobel Prize for Literature Lecture, 2016

Conclusion

From: Amazon

“All Quiet on the Western Front” therefore is that constant reminder that war is never the answer as not only does it destroy the communities that were once homes to these flourishing populations of boys who went off to war, but it destroys the very fabrics of the existence of each and every one of those boys. Piece by piece, it breaks them down to finer parts in which the previous more passionate boy cannot possibly thrive. He is probably already dead. It is a fantastically eye-opening novel that is only echoed in the ideas presented in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. The horror, the gore and the terrifying realities of this text are incredible as they are shocking.

Next Week: Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville

literature

About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

Secondary English Teacher & Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

X: @AnnieWithBooks

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Comments (3)

  • Cyrus4 days ago

    Congrats on TS!

  • Sam Avery4 days ago

    Really amazing interesting good work excellent.

  • angela hepworth7 days ago

    Absolutely timeless!

Annie KapurWritten by Annie Kapur

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