Illustration of Paul Baumer in a German army uniform with a red background

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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War and its Human Cost

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In the following essay, Henningfeld, an assistant professor of English at Adrian College, points out that Remarque's book, based on the novelist's own war experiences, was the first of its kind, and she notes that Remarque's main concern was for the way war irreparably damaged the lives of the survivers.

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front offers readers a fictional yet accurate account of the life of a common soldier in the trenches during the final two years of the First World War. Like the book's narrator, Paul Baumer, Remarque was a German soldier himself. During the decade following the German defeat, he suffered from depression and a sense of loss. Finally, in 1928, he wrote Im Westen nichts Neues, translated into English in 1929 as All Quiet on the Western Front. It quickly became an international best-seller. Soon after the publication of the book, the American-made film of All Quiet on the Western Front was released to international acclaim.

Response to Remarque's work was not all positive, however. In Germany, older people detested the negative portrait of the war and of their generation. In 1933, the German Nazi regime banned and burned the book, as Hans Wagener notes in his Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Even the showing of the film met with controversy in Berlin; subsequently, the film was banned in Germany.

Paul Fussell notes that the 1928 publication of Remarque's work coincided with the first memoirs of the war written by veterans who wanted the civilian population to know "the truth." Likewise, Brian Rowley partially attributes the success of All Quiet on the Western Front to its timing: "The interval of ten years since the war was short enough for the memoires of participants not to have faded, but long enough for the ex-servicemen to have recovered from their immediate post-war desire to forget."

Remarque's book drew on his first-hand knowledge of the war. He saw in others of his own generation the same hopelessness and lack of roots that he himself felt. Writing the book was his way of speaking for this generation. In a brief preface to All Quiet on the Western Front he writes, "This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."

Although Remarque's book is filled with death, it is not intended as a memorial to the eight million who died. Rather, for Remarque, the real tragedy of the war was in the destruction of the survivors, men who returned home from the war utterly changed and unable to resume their roles in society. As Christine R. Barker and R. W. Last write, "What Remarque is asserting in his novel is that, so extreme were the experiences of Baumer and his comrades that they were utterly devasted by their recognition of the discontinuity of life and the absence of any ultimate meaning in the universe." Through the setting, the structure, the tone of narration and dialogue, the descriptions of modern warfare, and the use of irony, Remarque demonstrates the ways in which the First World War profoundly changed the lives of a whole generation.

Remarque sets All Quiet on the Western Front during the last two years of the war. Germany's strength wanes while that of the Allieds grows from the American entry into the war in 1917. The location Remarque gives his story is the Western Front, along the German lines in France. However, although Remarque's story is that of a German soldier, his descriptions of the trenches and of the battles cross national boundaries. The tense, claustrophobic hours in the trenches waiting for the battle to begin, the huge rats stealing food from the soldiers; the corpses lying mutilated on the battlefield; the daily horrors of war taking on an air of normalcy: these are the experiences of all soldiers of the First World War.

As noted above, the first person narrator of the story is Paul Baumer, a young German foot soldier. Paul tells his story in plain language, short sentences, and in the present tense. Remarque structures the book in short episodes, with periods of intense, horrific battles alternating with episodes of life at the rear in recovery. The overall effect of this contrast is to make the stark details of life at the front even more disturbing than they would be otherwise. Further, the fragmentary structure mirrors the soldiers' experiences as they shuttle between the relative peace and safety of the rear and the horror of the front. Just as Paul experiences the war in fragments, the reader comes to an understanding of the war through the slow accumulation of the fragmented episodes. In many ways, the structure of the book resembles a collage, a work of art created by pasting together small, finely detailed vignettes to create a whole picture of the war.

The narrator's voice is a recorder's voice, the voice of someone trying to convey the truth without embellishment. As the troops move up to the front, for example, Paul tells us, "On the way we pass a shelled out school-house. Stacked up against its longer side is a high double wall of unpolished, brand-new coffins. They still smell of resin, and pine, and the forest. There are at least a hundred." He does not dwell on the implications of the coffins; he merely reports their presence. Paul's voice is emotionally flat. Even when his close friend Muller dies, he does not reveal his inner feelings: "Muller is dead. Someone shot him point-blank in the stomach with a Verey light. He lived for half an hour, quite conscious, and in terrible pain."

Likewise, the dialogue between the men never becomes maudlin or sentimental. The men keep their fears and deep thoughts to themselves. In one instance, Paul must spend the night in a shell crater with a Frenchman he has killed with his bare hands. The man's painful death affects him greatly. Shortly after Kat and Albert find him, Paul tries to explain to them how he felt. They stop him from speaking:

"You don't need to lose any sleep over your affair," nods Albert.
And now I hardly understand it myself anymore.
"It was only because I had to lie there with him so long," I say. "After all, war is war."

One notable exception to the generally emotionless narration is during Paul's last night at home during his leave. Paul shares with the reader not only the controlled, outward responses he gives to his mother but also his internal suffering at the parting. Yet neither he nor his mother will put into words the agony each feels. "Here I sit," Paul thinks, "and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it."

Remarque also includes descriptions of the new warfare to which the soldiers of the First World War were exposed. This warfare included the first use of machine guns, tanks, sophisticated explosives, airplanes, and poison gas. Technology outstripped tactics, causing battle losses on a greater scale than Europeans had ever seen. All Quiet on the Western Front moves the impersonal technology of war to a personal level. Through Paul's eyes, the reader is able to witness the technology on a small scale, through one man's experience. For example, when the French launch gas canisters into the German trenches, there is a scramble to put on the gas masks. Then the wait: "These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death: is it air-tight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots."

Although the book accurately portrays the experiences of soldiers under extreme pressure, All Quiet on the Western Front is not a history or a memoir of the events of the war, as Modris Eksteins points out. Rather, the events Paul relates serve to underscore the broader theme: the senselessness of all wars. Remarque effectively uses irony as a means of driving home this point. The irony is often bitter. For example, when a wounded messenger dog lies a hundred yards from the trenches, Berger decides to go and either "to fetch the beast in or to shoot it." In the attempt, he is killed with a wound to the pelvis, and the man who is sent to fetch Berger is also shot. In another instance, early in the book, Paul and Muller go to visit their friend Kemmerich, who has had a leg amputated. His most valuable possession is his pair of fine leather boots, boots that are useless now because "... even if he should get better, he would be able to use only one—they are no use to him." Muller inherits the boots; when he is killed, he bequeaths the boots to Paul. "I wear them, for they fit me quite well," Paul writes. As readers, we know the irony of this inheritance, something that Paul does not know himself: the acquisition of the boots is a clear signal that he is the next to die. Finally, Paul's death itself is bitterly ironic. He falls in the autumn of 1918, just weeks before the Armistice. Paul dies not in a big battle, but rather "on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: "All Quiet on the Western Front."

The closing lines of the novel are doubly ironic, however. We recall that Remarque opens his book with a promise to tell the story of those who have survived the war and have been destroyed by it. Because he dies, Paul is obviously not one of the survivors whose story Remarque promises to tell. Rather, Remarque grants Paul death, but not the horrid, slow death of the French printer, or of the young recruits splattered against the trenches. "Turning him over," the nameless narrator reports, "one saw that he could not have suffered long, his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come." For Remarque, this seems to be the ultimate irony: that in the senselessness "and brutality of war, there is something much worse than death, and that is survival."

Source: Diane Henningfeld in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Roles of the Secondary Characters in Remarque's Novel

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In the following essay, Henningfeld, an assistant professor of English at Adrian College, evaluates the roles of the secondary characters in Remarque's novel.

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front has as its narrator the young German foot soldier, Paul Baumer. However, in addition to Paul, there are a number of other important characters who function in a variety of ways throughout the book. These secondary characters tend toward stereotypical representations of particular types Remarque wanted present in his account of life at the front.

The secondary characters can be grouped in several distinct categories. First, there are the young soldiers who were friends with Paul in school and decided to enlist at the same time. These include Muller, Albert Kropp, and Leer. The second group includes the friends of the school mates - Tjaden, Haie Westhus, and Stanislaus Katczinsky, called Kat. The third group of secondary characters are what could be termed "outsiders" by virtue of age and their relationships to the soldiers. This group includes Kantorek, the boys' former schoolteacher; Himmelstoss, the sadistic drill instructor; and Paul's family at home.

Remarque reserves some of his most biting commentary for the members of the last group. Kantorek, with his "face like a shrew mouse," is a small, bossy man who convinces his class that they should join the army for the glory of their country. A member of the older generation, he stands for all those men who urge younger men to give up everything in defense of their countries. As Paul reflects, "There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best - in a way that cost them nothing." When Kantorek ends up in the army himself, he is totally unsuited for the life. One of his former students is given charge of training him and, in a reversal of roles, Kantorek becomes the powerless student.

Likewise, the training instructor Himmelstoss is a member of the older generation who attempts to teach the young men what he thinks they ought to know. However, it quickly becomes clear during their time at the front that Himmelstoss has taught them nothing worthwhile. When Himmelstoss himself is sent to the front, the men he previously mistreated ambush and beat him severely. Eventually, Himmelstoss distinguishes himself under fire by saving Westhus. With this character, Remarque demonstrates how only experience under fire can properly train a man for the brutality of war.

Paul's father is another of the older generation who seems to have no idea what his son must endure. When Paul comes home for leave, he realizes that a gulf has widened between them. His father wants him to share the details of life in battle with his friends, men of his own generation who stay at home. Paul's father symbolizes the whole generation of men who are willing to send their sons off to war but who, nonetheless, want to control the narration of their sons' experiences. Like Paul's father, older Germans did not want to read Remarque's book because of its brutality and lack of glory. They preferred to believe in what the poet Wilfred Owen called "the old lie": it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.

Of those at home, Paul's mother is the only one who does not press him for details of the front. Hers is the traditional plight of women who are expected to sacrifice their sons in the name of patriotic duty. The hardships of the war have made it impossible for her even to feed her family adequately. Thus, her traditional role of family nurturer has been taken from her. Further, in giving her son to the state, she erases her role as mother. Her cancer, then, can be read symbolically: it eats her from within, just as pain, grief, and guilt eat at women from all nations engaged in war.

At the front, the men grow in comradeship. Because they believe that only men who have experienced what they have experienced can understand each other, they find themselves increasingly cut off from their previous lives. While Muller, for example, cannot look back, he does look forward. Paul describes him as a man of "foresight." This foresight at times makes him appear cold and tactless. When he and Paul visit their dying comrade Kemmerich, Muller notices immediately that Kemmerich will no longer need his soft leather boots and so he asks for them. In addition, during a period of rest, Muller pushes each man in the group to describe what he will do in the future, when the war is over. He insists that each man will need a job in the future that he imagines. Ironically, he dies with his new boots, demonstrating how even those with foresight may not survive the war.

The men that the school chums befriend at the front are an assorted lot. Detering, for example, is a peasant farmer. His concerns are in marked contrast to those of Paul and his school friends. As a farmer, Detering's life revolves around sowing, reaping, and harvesting. Farmers are concerned with fertility and growth, not the sterility of war. At one point, Detering becomes enraged when horses are wounded in a battle: "His voice is agitated, it sounds almost dignified as he says, 'I tell you it is the vilest baseness to use horses in the war.'" When asked what he would do if peace were declared he responds,"I would go straight on with harvesting." The tension between Detering the farmer who brings forth life through his husbandry of the earth's resources and Detering the soldier forced to witness the death of creatures of the earth finally becomes too great. He goes mad and deserts the troop after seeing a cherry tree in blossom. The men believe that he is dead.

Perhaps the most important character at the front is Katczinsky, known as Kat. He is a forty-year-old, shrewd, cunning, hardbitten soldier. Under his tutelage, the school chums learn to look out for themselves. According to Paul, Kat has a "remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs." A cobbler before the war, Kat finds ways to cobble together a more comfortable life for himself and his comrades. Although Kat is of the older generation, the knowledge that he passes on to the younger men directly contrasts the useless lessons taught by Kantorek, Himmelstoss, and the men still at home. Kat's information can save lives; he knows when a barrage is about to start and he can tell the caliber gun by the sound it makes. As Christine R. Barker and R. W. Last write, "Significantly, Kat's qualities are vastly different from those of the group's parents and other figures of authority: he is admired for his ability to survive in a cruel environment and to care for the needs of his comrades." Kat's death near the end of the book leaves Paul alone. Without Kat's caretaking, Paul himself soon falls.

Although Kat is the most important character at the front, the importance of Albert Kropp to the story becomes apparent in retrospect. Paul calls his old school friend "the clearest thinker among us." His ability as a thinker is stressed throughout the early pages of the book. When Muller presses the men about their plans after the war, it is Kropp alone who understands how difficult their homecoming will be: "The war has ruined us for everything," he says. When Paul and Albert are wounded, they travel together to the army hospital for recovery. Albert's wounds are far more serious than Paul's and he loses his leg. At the end of their hospital stay, Paul reports, "Albert's stump heals well. The wound is almost closed. In a few weeks he should go off to an institution for artificial limbs. He continues not to talk much, and is much more solemn than formerly. He often breaks off his speech and stares in front of him. If he were not here with us he would have shot himself long ago." Kropp's prediction that the war has ruined them for everything seems certain to come true. If all that has kept him alive are his comrades, what will happen when he is separated from them?

When Kropp is sent home and Paul returns to the front, Kropp's significance becomes clear. Because the book ends with the report of Paul's death, we are forced to reconsider the preface Remarque provides at the very beginning at the book. In this brief paragraph, Remarque writes that his book "... will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." With this reconsideration, we suddenly realize that All Quiet on the Western Front is not Paul's story at all, but rather is the story of men like Kropp, survivors destroyed by the war. Paul, like so many others, ends face down in a field in France, oblivious to the world he leaves. Kropp, however, and the men like him, return shattered to face a world forever changed. According to Remarque, these broken men are the true tragedies of the war, and it is the story of these men that the author promises to tell.

Source: Diane Henningfeld in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998

Bad News

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In the following review, Matthews praises All Quiet on the Western Front as a gritty, true-to-life treatment of modern warfare and its effects upon humanity.

If a man has been in prison twenty years, and is then released, we should most of us agree that his life has been ruined. Not only have twenty years been taken away from him, but the bitterness of a special and futile knowledge will overshadow the rest of his days. But time, as we know (though none of us knows why), goes fast or slow according to what we are doing and where we find ourselves, and who shall say whether a few years in the trenches of the latest war might not have been the equivalent of at least twenty years in a peaceful jail?

In all the writing about the War which has the stamp of truth on it we find this feeling of the ghastly slowness of time. In All Quiet on the Western Front it is the first thing that strikes us. It is as if the War had been going on forever, and was creeping forward into an endless succession of tomorrows. "We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace." The present moment is all that can possibly exist. Neither the past nor the future will bear thinking about.

This is a book about something that nobody likes to talk of too much. It is about what happens to men in war. It has nothing whatever to do with the politenesses, the nobilities, or any of the sometimes pretty and sometimes ridiculous notions to which the world has once again settled down. The hero is a boy nineteen years old, a private in a German infantry regiment; his friends are mostly the same age. But it is hardly accurate to call them boys; as the author says of them: "We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost."

Some of them have volunteered; more have been drafted. The War, though they do not know it, has passed its peak: the slow decline of attrition has set in. The vague sense of fatality that we are made to feel in the opening pages gradually becomes a realization of approaching defeat. The new recruits come to the front younger and younger—so that even these boy-veterans of nineteen feel aged and protective. This is how the new recruits' look when they are dead:

Their sharp, downy faces have the awful expressionlessness of dead children.

It brings a lump into the throat to see how they go over, and run and fall. A man would like to spank them, they are so stupid, and to take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be. They wear grey coats and boots, but for most of them the uniform is far too big, it hangs on their limbs, their shoulders are too narrow, their bodies too slight, no uniform was ever made to these childish measurements.

The steady, unhurrying narrative picks its way from one desolation to another, following the fortunes of these precocious professionals, who have learned how to be soldiers and nothing else. They have their sprees and their moments of happiness, as when the indefatigable Tjaden spots an unlucky pig-pen or poultry-yard, they have their wind-falls, of women and extra rations; they even have their vacations. But it was not always a pleasant change, in Germany of the last war years, to go from the comparative ease of a rest-camp to the evident starvation of home. And between the civilians and the soldiers returned from the front was a gulf impossible to bridge.

They talk to me too much. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer-garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing just to sit quietly, like this.

And behind all the momentary reprieves lies the inescapable reality of the life to which they are all doomed: "bombardments, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades—words, words, but they hold the horror of the world."

These youngsters whom the War is swiftly making unfit for civilian life (though many of them will not have to make the change) have cast aside, of necessity, all that they have been taught. They have had to become soldiers, and they are nothing else. They believe in the present moment; it is not enough, but it is all they can be sure of. Love they have not known, patriotism and all the other abstract virtues and vices have vanished away in their first drum-fire; but something human they must cling to. They cling to their friends—not literally, and not even in words: when their friends are killed, there is nothing to be said. But what keeps them going in man's machine-made hell is the bodily presence of the friends around them.

They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear, they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere they are the voices of my comrades.

I have said nothing in criticism of this book, and there is little I will say. It is written with simplicity and candor, and reads as if it had been well translated. There is nothing mawkish about it, and nothing "literary"—it is not the artful construction of fancy, but the sincere record of a man's suffering. Unlike the experimental artist, the author has nothing new to say; but he says it so honestly and so well that it is like news to us, though it is bad news.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world, see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing—it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of Me is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

Another country has been heard from. We know by now that the victor nations got nothing but evil from the War; had we expected, then, that the Germans had derived some virtue from defeat? No, the War did no good to anybody. Those of its generation whom it did not kill, it crippled, wasted, or used up. We hear hopes expressed that another generation may be wiser. Let us pray rather, that it will not have to learn such costly wisdom.

Source: T. S Matthews, "Bad News," in The New Republic, Vol. LIX, No. 759, June 19, 1929, p. 130.

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Critical Overview