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All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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How is absurdity portrayed in All Quiet on the Western Front?

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All Quiet on the Western Front was written by Erich Maria Remarque, whom we may say is on authority on the Great War, the so-called "war to end all wars," for the simple reason that he experienced it firsthand, was a soldier in it, and was wounded in it. It took him ten years after the armistice of 11/11/18 to write the fictional account. I emphasize fictional because his is not a true story though some characters were based on people he knew. The book was written purposely as an antiwar novel pointing out the absurdity (pointlessness) and stupidity (shortsightedness) of World War I.

For examples of absurdity, one need not go any farther than the first chapter of the novel. The book opens in the trenches with 80 soldiers getting ready to eat, having just returned from a battle in which 70 soldiers in their regiment had been killed (they went into battle with 150, and came back with 80, almost half killed), yet they say nonsensical things such as, "It would not be such a bad war if only we could get a little more sleep." One soldier argues with the mess cook that they should get larger rations since the cook has enough food for 150 soldiers and they have only 80 people, to which the cook replies that he'd "be hanged" for breaking such a regulation. The novel is full of such inanity that it could likely be found in a dark comedy.

The first film version of the novel won the Best Picture Oscar at the 1930 Academy Awards. The film does not open in the battlefield, but in a boy's school wherein the headmaster gives a patriotic speech about the honor of wearing a uniform, the glory of the young ladies in those who wear them, imploring the young men (boys actually) to volunteer to fight and die for their country juxtaposing false promises, such as, "It will be a quick war," with appeals to nationalism using Latin phrases, such as, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," which means, "Sweet and fitting is it to die for the fatherland." The editing and cinematography in the 1930 film clearly paid homage to the pro-Bolshevik propaganda films of Sergei Eisenstein, with a montage of enthusiastic boys preparing to enlist reminiscent of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps from Battleship Potemkin (1925). In the film, as the boys marched to the recruitment office, crowds lined the streets to cheer them on. Such a hopeful beginning was known to be full of false hope, and the 1930 audience was aware of what the end of the story was. Fast-forward to the end of the film, four years and millions of dead boys later, the absurdity is clear because the reason for it is not. Forever will hang the question, "For what? What was it all for?" The Great War ended in an armistice which euphemistically means, "There were no winners."

The absurdity is palpable in this passage from the novel:

We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death. The sun goes down, night comes, the shells whine, life is at an end. (134)

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