War and its Human Cost
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...
(The entire section is 4,550 words.)