Erich Maria Remarque’s narrative in All Quiet on the Western Front is written entirely in the present tense, which conveys urgency and immediacy. The reader does not know why the war is being fought because only Paul Bäumer’s thoughts are known; his is a particular perspective that is absent from schoolbooks and historical accounts. This perspective increases readers’ compassionate understanding for the unfair situations faced by all soldiers on all sides of war.
The situation is augmented by propaganda. Some historical accounts of the war claim that German soldiers had skewered and eaten Belgian babies. Propagandists can do no better than pitch people against each other with the myth that they are seeking each other’s destruction. Remarque has his main character make sense of his experiences by working through the episodes of his life to attempt to create order from the experiential chaos. The fundamental immorality of war is the blatant use of people to achieve goals they themselves do not understand or identify with.
Propaganda evaporates under the onslaught of the stark reality in which the soldiers find themselves. At one point, Bäumer wonders how a shorn head can become more important than four volumes of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s work, a significant allusion if one recalls that Schopenhauer had considered the spirit of the world divided against itself and preying upon itself in war. For Schopenhauer, the...
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