Many claim that All Quiet on the Western Front is the greatest war novel of all time. Now I haven’t read that many war novels. However, I will say this is a damn good novel. If you only read one war novel in your life, I highly recommend this one. If you want to understand how the common soldier feels, not only physically but emotionally, this is the novel for you. Erich Maria Remarque does not sugarcoat things. He doesn’t romanticize war. He doesn’t claim that it’s the greatest adventure. He does not advocate war.
Paul Bäumer is a young German who enlisted in the army with his classmates when World War I began. The enthusiastic youths soon discover that war is hell, especially trench warfare. He and his comrades have to face hardships and atrocities that civilians will never be able to understand.
While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards—they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.
Remarque’s descriptions of trench warfare are chilling. As the war dragged on, the casualties mounted. Germany had to send green recruits to the front without proper training. Most did not survive.
Although we need reinforcement, the recruits give us almost more trouble than they are worth. They are helpless in this grim fighting area, they fall like flies. Modern trench-warfare demands knowledge and experience; a man must have a feeling for the contours of the ground, an ear for the sound and character of the shells, must be able to decide beforehand where they will drop, how they will burst, and how to shelter from them.
As the war progresses, Paul learns that the enemy is not too different from him. On the other side are young men fighting for their country, just like Paul and his comrades. They have the same hopes and fears. They are going through the same hell. When Paul has to confront an enemy soldier that he has killed it has a profound effect on him.
Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to be before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was the abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
Reading this novel is gut-wrenching. War is never an easy subject matter. I understand that. I also recognize that too many nations send their young men and women off to war. This novel should be required reading. It teaches about the horrors inflicted on the young people who have to fight. No one should experience what these people experienced. This novel will more than likely have a profound effect on most readers. In fact, the Nazis banned this book when they came to power. They were planning a war and they wanted people to be excited about it. They didn’t want their citizens to learn the true horrors of battle, which this book clearly shows.
Erich Maria Remarque fought in World War I. He was wounded five times. In 1939 he moved to the United States. After World War II he moved to Switzerland. When he published this novel he became famous and wealthy. This did not discourage his mission. He wanted to write about the inhumanity and atrocities of war. All of his subsequent novels (I haven’t read any other works by him) all concentrate on these topics. He knew firsthand how awful it was. And he knew firsthand the effects on the common soldier. Each time I read this novel I’m amazed by how real he makes the war. It leaves me in awe and in fear.
This novel is on my 1001 list. Also, it counts towards my goal of reading more novels from around the world. Does anyone have any more suggestions for war novels?