I usually avoid books on war (and other harrowing topics), but I needed a classic about war to finish my Back to the Classics challenge. I happened to have All Quiet on the Western Front on my TBR shelf, and since on its cover there was a banner proclaiming, “The greatest war novel of all time,” I thought I’d give it a try. And I’m so glad I did. This novel, by Erich Maria Remarque, was beautifully and sensitively written in a way that helped me understand the emotional experience of soldiers at war without overwhelming my emotions. Originally written in German, my copy was translated by A.W. Wheen and I found the writing simple and easy to read. Some of the most affecting passages for me included the following:
Describing a dying friend: “Under the skin the life no longer pulses, it has already pressed out the boundaries of the body. Death is working from within. It already has command in the eyes. Here lies our comrade. Kemmerich, who a little while ago was roasting horse flesh with us and squatting in the shell-holes. He it is still and yet it is not he any longer. His features have become uncertain and faint, like a photographic plate from which two pictures have been taken. Even his voice sounds like ashes.”
After guarding Russian prisoners of war: “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.”
Reflecting on the future: “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…. Through the years our business has been killing;—it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?”
Remarque, who was born in 1898, knew whereof he wrote. He was conscripted into the German army at age 18, and eventually wounded several times. After his discharge, he worked as a teacher, stonecutter and test car driver for a tire company, among other things. All Quiet on the Western Front was first published as Im Westen Nichts Neues in German in 1929, and sold more than a million copies the first year. The English translation, published the same year, was just as successful. The book was subsequently translated into 12 languages and made into a movie in 1930. Unsurprisingly, Remarque’s books were banned in Germany in the 1930s, and publicly burned in 1933.
Remarque wrote nine more novels, though none was as successful as All Quiet. He led quite a colorful life, and died in Switzerland in 1970 from an aneurysm.
All Quiet on the Western Front gives us a peek inside the minds of those who actually fight. Warfare may have changed a lot since 1918, but I imagine those fighting still go through most of the emotions and experiences found in this novel. All Quiet was more than worth the read. I felt sensitized and educated rather than depressed, and would definitely recommend it.