All Quiet on the Western Front Analysis
- All Quiet on the Western Front is an antiwar novel told from the point of view of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier in World War I. Through his eyes, the reader witnesses the horrors of war.
- Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front in the style of a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel that follows characters through their formative years. Paul's spiritual growth is most obvious in his eventual disenchantment with the war.
- The butterfly Paul reaches for at the end of the novel symbolizes innocence and nature, which is being destroyed by the horrors of war.
Last Updated on April 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
Point of View
Remarque has been praised for the simple, direct language of his war novels in contrast to their often violent subject matter; he is also acknowledged for his ability to create moving, realistic characters and situations. His prose style is punctuated with fragmented narrative passages that mirror Paul's often disoriented state of mind. The plot moves in a "bildungsroman" format, demonstrating a young man's personal development. There are impressionist details that move in tableau fashion. Remarque's choice of a first-person narrator does, however, create one possible problem: the two concluding paragraphs have to stem from a new, apparently omniscient third-person narrator whose intervention is needed after the death of the first-person narrator. The story does not suffer from this change of viewpoint or from the absence of any explanation of the mechanics by which it came to be set down.
The narrative stance provides Remarque with a realistic context for a naive and simple style, which is part of the novel's popular appeal, as well as a fragmented, uncoordinated syntax and use of the present tense, a form that reflects immediacy; these features thus became part of the famous 'frog's eye view' of the war. He is able to comment on events through Paul Baumer himself—and through him of the other characters—without the need to provide an omniscient narrative perspective: indeed with a requirement not to do so. Style and point of view are matched, and both reflect the incomprehensibility of war.
Narrative viewpoint and the focus on the central character are also closely linked with structure. The work is divided into small sections, separated by asterisks. This feature makes it easier to read but it also makes for a realistic effect—that of a journal entry or a brief conversation. The novel operates structurally, in fact, on an alternation between the cruelty and despair of the battle scenes, and a gradual return to life during periods in reserve. The book is divided into short episodes and has a heavy reliance on conversation, characteristic of Remarque's style in general.
Description alternates with speculative passages by Baumer, and there are inconclusive discussions on the futility of the whole war. There are no historical details, certainly no heroics, and not even a real enemy except death, although Baumer is forced to kill an equally terrified Frenchman.
Though the novel is set during World War I, in the northern Belgian border between Langemark and Bixschoote, Flanders, Remarque does not really present the conflict of a war between the Germans and Allied forces. The battles are almost never identified and dates are rarely given; he writes of "the troops over there" more often than he does of specific nationalities, for they are not the real enemy. Speaking in a foxhole in no-man's land to the Frenchman he has killed, Paul blames the carnage on the desire for profit and on "national interest" as defined by authorities and institutions on both sides.
The symbols in the novel are mundane yet striking: for example, the soldiers' boots, which pass from one man to the next as each man dies violently; and potato cakes, which represent home and comfort to Paul. Indeed, the boots pass from Kemmerich to Muller to Tjaden to Paul (and thus foreshadow his death). For Baumer, the trenches represent the antithesis of the fragile, gentle, and ever-present beauty of nature, the "lost world of beauty." On the other hand, nature, in the form of butterflies and poplar trees, provides Paul with a reminder of innocence and peace.
Remarque also employs personification—endowing inanimate objects with human qualities—to describe the wind (playing with the soldiers' hair), and the darkness that blackens the night with giant strides. An example of his use of simile is his description of a man collapsing like a rotten tree. Apostrophes like "Ah, mother, mother! You still think I am a child—why can I not put my head in your lap and weep?" evoke the epic tragedies of ancient Greece.
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*Western front. Theater of World War I in which German forces faced the Western Allies along an extensive series of battlefields that ran from the Belgian coast south into northern France. (The eastern front was the line along which Germany confronted Russia.) Much of the western front was made up of intricate systems of trenches from which troops sallied forth across treacherous “no-man’s-lands” in mostly futile attacks on enemy positions. Through most of the war, the battlefronts moved very little, and many troops stationed in the trenches endured continuous bombardment and suffered from appalling health conditions as formerly peaceful farmlands and pleasant countryside were converted into bloody battlefields.
It was along the western front that the French and British armies and those of their allies aligned themselves against the armies of Germany and its allies, using such modern weapons and implements as poison gas, tanks, powerful explosives, flame throwers, hand grenades, machine guns, long-range artillery, aircraft, and barbed wire. Thanks to modern technology, the scale of death and injury was catastrophic. Individual soldiers were considered expendable in outmoded military strategies governed by policies of attrition dictating the winners would be the last side to have soldiers still standing. This was especially true on the western front, where battles continued for months while corpses and casualties mounted.
The novel neither locates its protagonist, Paul Baumer, in any specific battlefield nor focuses on the larger strategies or battles of the war. Instead, it reveals the war only as it is experienced through the limited and subjective perspective of Paul, who knows little about the larger purposes of the war. Paul represents all the nameless soldiers who fought on the western front. To him, the battles seem both meaningless and frightening; ordinary days with his comrades are interrupted by unreal but frenetic periods of battle. Ironically, it is during one uneventful day on the front that the young, poetic Paul is unexpectedly shot by desultory enemy fire shortly before the Armistice is declared and the fighting stops. The impersonality and randomness of his death brings home the entire character of war on the western front as depicted in this novel—the inconsequential value of the millions of individual soldiers who died.
Home front. While most of the narrative takes place on the battlefront lines, one section of the novel takes Paul back to his hometown in Germany, allowing readers to contrast that world with his experiences on the front lines. During his leave, Paul returns home to a typical German small town of the time that is accustomed to the comforts and securities of peaceful middle-class life. The unnamed town represents all small German towns of the time.
Remarque uses Paul’s visit to his home to indicate the vast gulf between his perspective of the war and that of those who remain on the home front. The people at home, while suffering some deprivations, have no idea of the dimensions and depth of the suffering on the battlefields of the western front. Paul’s trip back home consolidates his feelings of a generational shift in which he and his peers represent a dramatic break with the past.
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World War I
Named for its complex involvement of countries from Northern Europe to Africa, western Asia, and the U.S., World War I, called the Great War, was ignited by a single episode. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. As the Austrian government plotted a suitable retribution against the Serbs, the effect on Russia was taken into consideration. Because Russia was closely allied with Serbia, Austrian officials worried that the slightest aggression against the Serbs would result in Russian involvement. As a precaution, Austria sought support from Germany, its most powerful ally. Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately vouched for Germany's assistance, telling the Austrian powers that his nation would support whatever action the Austrian government might take.
On July 23, 1914, the Austrian empire presented an ultimatum to the Serbs, demanding that they suppress Serbian nationalist activity by punishing activists, prosecuting terrorists, squashing anti-Austrian propaganda, and even allowing Austrian officials to intrude into Serbian military affairs. Two hours before the expiration of the forty-eight hour deadline on the ultimatum, Serbia responded. However, its response fell short of complete acceptance of the terms and so was rejected by the Austrian authorities. As war between Austria and Serbia loomed on the horizon, both sides experienced a massive groundswell of optimism and patriotism regarding the impending conflict.
The Austrians declared war on Serbia and began shelling Serbian defenses. As these aggressions began, the Russian army started mobilizing to aid the Serbs, and it was soon clear that Russia was going to become involved in the war. Two days later, the German army began to mobilize and entered the war to support Austria. Germany was jubilant about the prospect of war and believed that its entrance into the conflict was perfectly justified. Kaiser Wilhelm II stated: "A fateful hour has fallen upon Germany. Envious people on all sides are compelling us to resort to a just defense ... war will demand enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure but we shall show our foes what it means to provoke Germany."
Germany began a heavy assault on France, an ally of the Russians. To facilitate this assault, the German troops marched through Belgium. Great Britain, Belgium's ally, sent an ultimatum to the German army to withdraw from Belgian soil. When the ultimatum went unanswered, Britain entered the war, which had already included Czechs, Poles, Rumanians, Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Arabs, and eventually the Italians and Turks. Germany faced Russian, French, and British enemies, who outnumbered their army 10 million to 6 million.
War in the Trenches
As Germany engaged the French and British armies in the West, it became clear that a decisive victory was not an immediate possibility. Both sides in the conflict settled themselves into trenches and dugouts in preparation for a war of attrition. New weapons such as the machine gun and more efficient artillery made the trenches a necessity. Soldiers on open ground would be decimated by the newfangled instruments of death. Opposing trenches were typically several hundred yards apart. The middle ground, which was laced with barbed wire, soon became known as "no-man's land." Constant firefights and artillery barrages removed all foliage from this area and made it nearly impossible to cross. Daring raids across this deadly no-man's land became one of the chief pursuits of infantrymen in the trenches. During these raids, soldiers would cross the treacherous ground, penetrating enemy barbed wire either with well-placed artillery attacks or with special rifle attachments that gathered several strands of wire together and the fired a bullet, severing them. Upon reaching the enemy lines, soldiers would first throw a volley of hand grenades into the trenches and then attack the surprised defenders with bayonets. While these raids did not typically result in major casualties to defenders, they devastated enemy morale and bolstered the confidence of the attackers. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Baumer participates in such a raid. Caught in a no-man's land by shell-fire, Baumer takes shelter in a shallow hole. When a French soldier also seeks shelter there, Baumer stabs him and feels tormented by guilt as he watches the young man die. This scene especially illustrates the traumatic nature of the raids.
The Western Front
The Western front was a 475-mile-long battle line between the Germans and the Allied forces. Along this line of fighting were 900,000 German troops and 1.2 million Allied soldiers, or roughly 1,900 and 2,500 men per mile of front. Overall, the western front was not a continuous trench, but rather a string of unconnected trenches and fortifications The round of duty along the Western front differed little for soldier on either side of the conflict. Most of the night would be spent at hard labor, repairing the trench wall, laying barbed wire, and packing sandbags. After the dawn stand-to, when every man would line up on the firing step against the possibility of a morning attack, the rest of the day would generally be spent in sleep or idleness, occasionally interrupted by sentry duty or another stand-to when enemy activity was suspected. Despite the sometimes lengthy periods of calm along the front, life in the trenches was filled with constant dangers. In addition to artillery attacks and surprise raids, soldiers suffered afflictions brought on by a daily existence in wet and unsanitary conditions. The lack of fresh foods and soggy environment in the trenches resulted in "trench foot," an affliction that turned the feet green, swollen, and painful. Another ailment suffered by soldiers in the trenches was the debilitating, though not fatal, trench fever, transmitted by the lice that infested everyone after a day or two in the line. Baumer and his comrades in the novel take several trips to the delousing stations during their service on the front.
The Human Cost of the War
On the Allies side, the total casualties suffered were as follows: Russia, 9,150,000; England, 3,190,235; France, 6,160,000; Italy, 2,197,000; the U.S., 323,018; and Serbia, 331,106. On the Axis side, Germany lost 7,142,558; and Austria-Hungary, 7,020,000.
The Influence of the Older Generation
Central to Remarque's novel is the attack on members of Germany's older generation for imposing their false ideals of war on their children. The older generation's notions of a patriotism and their assumptions that war was indeed a valorous pursuit played a crucial role in the conflict. The chief sources of this pro-war ideology were the older men of the nation: professor, publicists, politicians, and even pastors. As the war began, these figures intensified the rhetoric, providing all the right reasons why killing the young men of France and Britain was a worthy endeavor. One Protestant clergyman spoke of the war as "the magnificent preserver and rejuvenator." Government authorities in Germany did everything in their power to try and get the young men to enlist, even granting students special dispensation to complete final exams early so as to be able to join up sooner. As the war broke out, more than a million young men volunteered for service.
In his book, Remarque uses the character of the schoolteacher Kantorek to develop the novel's attack against the older generation. Kantorek's persistent encouragement of the young men to enlist prompted Baumer's entire class to volunteer for service. With each successive death of Baumer's classmates, the novel further condemns the attitudes and influences of the older generation. Baumer himself denounces the pressure they exerted. "For us lads of eighteen," he observes, "they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future."
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All Quiet on the Western Front is an antiwar novel which, in its simple direct narrative, conveys the pathos, horror, and waste that result from war. Through his nineteen-year-old narrator, Remarque details the lives and deaths of Baumer and his comrades as they move from innocence to knowledge about war's terrible effects and consequences. Moreover, the novel's poignant tone results from Remarque's relentlessly piling up detail after savage detail about war. Besides the more particularized deaths of Baumer and his classmates are details about other deaths, both German and enemy. During a heavy artillery barrage, a young German recruit insanely rushes out of a dugout, is blown to bits, and lumps of his flesh and bits of his uniform plaster the trench sides; trench mortars blow men out of their clothes and hurl body parts into trees; during a charge a German lance corporal's head is blown off, but he "runs a few steps more while blood spouts from the neck like a fountain." A French soldier's head is cleaved in two with a trenching tool, and another Frenchman's hands and stumps of arms hang on the barbed wire. Significantly, by detailing the deaths on both sides of the wire, Remarque universalizes Baumer's and his classmates' experiences to include all combatants — German, American, English, and French — a fact made more poignant in the memorable scene in which Baumer spends the night in the shell hole with Gerard Duval whom Baumer has fatally stabbed and whom Baumer calls comrade: "Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, 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?"
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1920s: In the world of finance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits 381. A period of general prosperity for the country (except for the farmer), the government adopts a "laissez-faire" attitude towards big business. This policy ends with the collapse of the economy following October 29, 1929, the stock market crash, when $30 billion disappears, a sum equal to what the war cost America.
Today: The Dow Jones Industrial Average reaches 7,000, as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan keeps a steady watch on the burgeoning economy and cautions investors of the ever-present possibility of high inflation and interest rates that could adversely affect the market. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Banking Acts established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Administration set the precedent for improved vigilance in the stock market.
1920s: The German dirigible, Graf Zeppelin, arrives October 15, 1902 after covering 1630 miles in 121 hours on its first commercial flight. The voyage from Friedrickshafen inaugurates transatlantic service by aircraft. The balloon-like airship, the zeppelin, is used in World War I to move silently over enemy territory and drop bombs.
Today: The Concorde enables passengers to fly twice the speed of sound between Paris and New York in three and a half hours. Developed by Col. John Boyd, a legendary U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, the F16, used in the Persian Gulf War, has the capability to change course more quickly and climb faster than any war plane before, thus revolutionizing military strategy.
1920s: The Three Penny Opera opens at Berlin's Theatre. Starring Lotte Lenya as Jenny, the show includes music by Lenya's husband Kurt Weill. The libretto is by Bertolt Brecht, who transposed the "Beggar's Opera" of 1728 into the idiom of Germany's Weimar Republic.
Today: Cabaret, the hit musical starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, based on Christopher Isherwood's "I am a Camera," records the story of an Englishman's initiation into the decadent, club scene of 1920s Berlin. The musical, which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City on Nov. 20, 1966, ran for 1,165 performances, and inspired an award-winning Hollywood film.
1920s: The Leica introduced by E. Leitz G. m.b.H. of Wetzlar, Germany, is a revolutionary miniature 35 millimeter camera invented by Oskar Bernack. It takes a thirty-six-frame film roll and has a lens that can be closed down to take pictures with great depth of field or opened for dim lighting conditions, fast and slow shutter speeds, and interchangeable lenses that permit close-ups and telephotography.
Today: Ken Perlin, a New York University professor, discovers a technique in computer science that makes computer-generated images look natural, as, for example, the roughing up of dinosaurs' skin in the film Jurassic Park.
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All Quiet on the Western Front belongs to the literature of war genre that extends backward in time to Homer's Iliad and forward to the Viet Nam novels. Significantly, however, All Quiet on the Western Front marks a change in attitude towards war, an attitude similarly expressed by other World War I writers — poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and novelists like Ernest Hemingway, Dalton Trumbo, and Humphrey Cobb. Instead of glorifying the warrior hero and war itself, Remarque catalogs the ghastly horrors and sheer absurdity of World War I. In fact, in the prefatory quotation, Remarque writes that All Quiet on the Western Front will not be an "adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it." The word adventure connotes those Greek, Roman, and Medieval epics that glorify war as the great adventure, but in claiming that his novel is not an adventure, Remarque rejects the older heroic ideals of fighting for God, country, glory, and honor. In fact, many critics believe that World War I not only marked the collapse of the belief in the progress and perfection of mankind, but it also destroyed the belief in the warrior hero whose personal distinctiveness depended on his noble sacrifice for God, King, and Country. In this sense, All Quiet on the Western Front foreshadows Remarque's A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954), a World War II novel, and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (its title is a rejection of the Aeneid's theme, "Arms and the man I sing"). Another significant difference between All Quiet on the Western Front and other World War I and II novels is that Remarque emphasizes the common bond and fate of both German and allied soldiers in Baumer's references to the enemy as simply "the fellows over there" for whom says Baumer, "It's the same for everyone; not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age."
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With simulated World War I trenches built on movie lots in Santa Monica, California, Universal Studios began filming All Quiet on the Western Front on Armistice Day, 1929. Four months later, the film, starring Lew Ayers as Paul Baumer and Louis Wolheim as Kat, was completed, became an instant classic, won an Academy Award, and periodically reappears on Public Broadcasting Stations and other channels. In its depiction of the young recruits being stripped of their grand illusions by the harrowing realities of World War I, the black-and-white film adaptation conveys the novel's tone and spirit. Indeed, the New York Times reported that the film is "a trenchant and imaginative audible picture ... most of the time the audience was held to silence by its realistic scenes." The film does, however, change the novel's ending in that in the film a sniper kills Baumer when he reaches out to cup a butterfly in his hand.
Fifty years later, on November 14, 1979, producers Martin Starger and Norman Rosemont began filming a Technicolor version of All Quiet on the Western Front for the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" series. Starring Richard Thomas (Baumer), Ernest Borgnine (Kat), Donald Pleasance (Kantorek), Ian Holm (Himmelstoss), and Patricia Neal (Baumer's mother) and filmed in Czechoslovakia in ten weeks, the film also preserves the novel's tone and spirit which are further enhanced by Technicolor. As did the 1929 film, this 1979 version changes the novel's ending in that a sniper kills Baumer when he strains for a better view of a bird that he is sketching.
Although not as drastic as some changes made in movie adaptations, the butterfly and bird endings of the respective films are neither as poignant nor as ironic as Remarque's ending:
He fell in October, 1918, 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.
All Quiet on the Western Front 105 He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had the expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.
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All Quiet on the Western Front was adapted as a film in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, who won an Academy Award for his direction. The movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year despite controversy in both the United States and Germany, starred Lew Ayres, John Wray, and Louis Wolheim and is available from MCA/Universal Home Video.
The film was remade into a television movie in 1979. Directed by Delbert Mann and produced by Norman Rosemont, it starred Richard Thomas, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine, and Patricia Neal and is available from CBS/Fox Video.
A recording was produced by Prince Frederick, with Frank Muller narrating, 1994, five cassettes.
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Christine Barker and R. W. Last, Erich Maria Remarque, Oswald Wolff (London) and Barnes and Noble (New York), 1979.
Louis Kronenberger, "War's Horror as a German Private Saw It," in the New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1929, p. 5.
Joseph Wood Krutch, "Glorious War," in the Nation, Vol. 129, No. 3340, July 10, 1929, p. 43.
Brian R Rowley, "Journalism into Fiction" Im Westen nichts Neues," in The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Holger Klein, Macnullan, 1976, pp. 101-12.
Hans Wagener, Understanding Erich Maria Remarque, University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
For Further Reading
Modris Eksteins, "All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War," in The Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 15, No. 2, April, 1980, pp. 345-65. This critic argues that All Quiet on the Western Front became a success because it accurately portrayed public sentiment about war in 1929.
Hildegarde Emmel, History of the German Novel, trans. Ellen Summerfield, Wayne State University Press, 1984. This book places Remarque's story in the context of other German war novels.
Richard Arthur Firda, All Quiet on the Western Front: Literary Analysis and Cultural Context, Twayne, 1993. An excellent general introduction to the themes, structure, style, and history of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Richard Arthur Firda, Erich Maria Remarque: A Thematic Analysis of His Novels, Peter Lang (Amsterdam), 1988. This book examines the themes of Remarque's books and refers to his temperament as "meditative and post-Romantic."
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975. The classic study of the intersection of literature and real life in the literature of the First World War.
Frank Ernest Hill, "Destroyed By the War," in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, June 2, 1929, pp. 1-2. An early review that comments on Remarque's spare style and suggests the is book is "surprisingly unnational."
Charles W. Hoffman, "Erich Maria Remarque," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: German Fiction Writers 1914-1945, edited by James Hardin, Vol 56, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 222-241. An excellent starting place for any student; the volume provides an overview of Remarque's life as well as critical commentary.
C R. Owen, Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Bibliography, Rodopi, 1984. Although not always easy to use, this bibliography provides most notably a good selection of interviews with Remarque.
Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est," in The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited and with an introduction by C. Day Lewis, New Directions, 1963, pp 55-6. Owen's famous poem of World War I.
Harley U. Taylor, Erich Maria Remarque: A Literary and Film Biography, Peter Lang, 1989. Useful source for information on the movie versions of Remarque's novels.
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Barker, Christine R., and R. W. Last. Erich Maria Remarque. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979. An accessible biography, with a great deal of material that is relevant to All Quiet on the Western Front. Good, brief coverage of the novel’s popular and scholarly reception. The best place to start further study.
Firda, Richard Arthur. “All Quiet on the Western Front”: Literary Analysis and Cultural Context. New York: Twayne, 1993. Contains much biographical information, as well as a somewhat pedantic but solid discussion of the novel. Useful annotated bibliography.
Pfeiler, Wilhelm K. War and the German Mind: The Testimony of Men of Fiction Who Fought at the Front. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941. An excellent study of German World War I novels. The chapter on All Quiet on the Western Front treats the novel in the context of contemporary war novels; especially good on political background and reception.
Taylor, Harley U., Jr. Erich Maria Remarque: A Literary and Film Biography. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Four brief chapters supply a very basic, even journalistic treatment of the novel and the fascinating story of the 1930 American film based on it. Useful chronology.
Wagener, Hans. Understanding Eric Maria Remarque. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. The best starting point for further general study, a basic text that treats all of Remarque’s works. In one long chapter, All Quiet on the Western Front receives a thorough analysis. A basic biographically and historically grounded presentation.