Erich Maria Remarque Essay - Critical Essays

Erich Maria Remarque Long Fiction Analysis

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s most famous novel, the reader experiences events during World War I, from summer to fall, 1917, that reduce a military company of 150 men to only 32. Without purporting to be authentic, the account nevertheless compels credibility. The war is portrayed in a factual style with such immediacy and force that, however impartial, the report shocked Remarque’s readership and provoked a strong pacifist response.

All Quiet on the Western Front

One scene in the work is representative of many. It illustrates the undercurrent that awoke such a reaction and provides an insight into attitudes characteristic of Remarque’s novels generally. When the teenage recruit Paul Bäumer takes refuge in a shell crater from which there is no retreat under fire, he finds himself unexpectedly forced to share the site with a Frenchman, whom he stabs. Forced to share cover with the corpse of his anonymous enemy during the long wait until the firing should cease, Bäumer familiarizes himself with the man’s identity and background by examining his papers—those of a simple typesetter. Bäumer promises himself that he will thereafter support the man’s family and oppose the war.

Such a scene, as well as the expressions of antimilitarism with which the work is rife, provoked a violent response from the political right, including public disturbances at the showing of the film version in Berlin in 1930. Zealots dedicated to avenging the perceived outrages perpetrated by the Treaty of Versailles were infuriated by the direct contradiction of National Socialist dogma: The defeat of the German army was portrayed not as the consequence of a perfidious “stab in the back” but as the result of an Allied advantage gained by fresher, more numerous troops with adequate matériel and support; Russians, a species relegated by National Socialist genetics to a subhuman order, behave in a more brotherly fashion to one another in captivity than do Germans to their comrades in arms.

Written in the style of the 1920’s known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), All Quiet on the Western Front treats in simply constructed, precise, and quickly moving prose a theme current in the literature of that time. Coincidentally, it breaks sharply with another fashion then in vogue.

During the age of Bismarck and the kaisers, politics, society, and familial affairs were dominated by the authoritarian father figure, who brooked no dissent. A variant of this type was the tyrannical pedagogue, a familiar character in German literature since before the end of the nineteenth century. This figure intimidated his hapless subjects in an attempt to demean them and break their spirits; at the same time, however, he fostered a streak of antiauthoritarianism in the more hardy of them. In All Quiet on the Western Front, the attitudes engendered by such experiences are represented among boys who are marched out of the classroom as a body by their teacher to enlist for military service at the front. There, the teacher is succeeded by sergeants and other (interchangeable) figures of authority who provoke reactions of slavishness and insubordination known to the members of an entire generation.

All Quiet on the Western Front appeared during a time when works dealing with World War I enjoyed considerable popularity in Germany. Unlike Remarque’s novel, however, most of these works presented a justification or rationalization, from the German point of view, of this terrible European tragedy. The fiction of Ernst Jünger, for example, glorifies the ennobling effects of war—its intensification of the manly virtues and the strength of the race.

Purporting to be “neither an accusation nor a confession” but rather a report on “a generation which was destroyed by the war even though it escaped the grenades,” Remarque’s work assumes the role of documentary journalism. No attempt is made, however, to preserve objective distance; the reader is induced to identify with Paul Bäumer and his comrades from the outset. Nineteen years old and neither men nor boys, the former classmates are tragically out of place at the front, members of a company whose numbers have been reduced from 150 to 80 in only two weeks. Daily encounters with death have endowed the adolescents with precious wisdom, cynicism regarding the pronouncements of the older generation, self-reliance, and a sense of camaraderie. The fate of their classmate Josef Behm conveyed a lesson for their generation. Behm had been reluctant to serve. Shot in the eyes during battle, he crawled around blindly, unable to find cover, and was picked off by gunfire—one of the first to be killed.

The message of the novel is written in the experience of Bäumer and his comrades. What has been learned in school is useless; the knowledge they need was never entrusted to them—for example, the trick of making fire from wet wood or the advantage gained by stabbing one’s bayonet into the opponent’s belly rather than into his ribs. The prospect of civilian life looms as a void on the horizon. No occupational skills were learned in the military, and the resumption of study seems purposeless. The war has ruined men for everything. On leave from the front, Bäumer is unable to find his way about in the strange civilian world.

The impartiality conveyed by the objective tone of a military report is dispelled by the horror that the novel depicts. Thrust and parry, attack and counterattack follow mindlessly under a netlike arch of hand grenades as men forge forward over the trenches with spades and bayonets; wounded horses scream horribly until put to death after the last injured soldiers are retrieved. A wretched death is spread by poison gas, and even...

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