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However, I believe that literate man’s ability to connect with the written word, the relationship that we can form with a book’s characters is so extraordinary that there can never be too many reviews.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – or in German: Nothing New in the West, which is just as revealing – was penned by returned WWI German solider Erich Maria Remarque. Published in 1929, ironically, a few years short of when Germany would go to Hell in a hand-basket, once again.
The novel revolves around 18 year old German foot-solider, Paul Bäumer and the group of classmates he enlisted with, and his experience of The Great War.
But the war itself isn’t the main point of this novel; it seems to be just background noise to the real story – humans at their best and worst. Which does sound like a cliché except Remarque’s novel is anything but.
Bäumer frequently notes that he entered the war in the limbo stage of life – not quite an adult, but not a child. The war prolonged this limbo, displacing him from a life that he could have.
‘The Western Front’ has a somewhat circular narrative, beginning in relative silence – a group of boys eating and splitting cigarette rations – and ending in silence, with Bäumer’s death in battle. Despite the circumstances his death is a detached, quiet moment, almost happening ‘off-screen’. At the same time a report is sent back to the generals: “All quiet on the Western Front”.
The novel was a success and spawned two films of the same name (neither of which had German actors). Defined as the ultimate war story, decades on publishing houses are still reprinting and repackaging it with special prefaces and fancy covers.
I’ve read war novels before ( Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead was particularly gruesome), but I was quiet shocked at the level of honesty in this book. It’s not the ‘action’ parts of the novel, with bombs and death, but the quite moments, that rattle you.
Moments like Bäumer realising that he and his fellow classmates no longer have memories of homes or futures, just of war, and women who are only interested in them when they play the role of the ‘poor soldier’. When one of the more naive boys, Tjaden, wonders why Germany is even at war the others say that it’s because one country has offended another. Tjaden replies,
Perhaps most revealing and poignant, especially when we think of the returning soldiers of now-a-days, is when Bäumer returns home on leave, he feels so uncomfortable and disconnected with the people around him, he longs to return to the Front.
He particularly hates when civilians come to him and spout words of condolences or shake their heads at the loss of life, pressing him for the ‘real’ war stories. Bäumer sees war as so savage and irrational that it cannot be mollified with platitudes or pretend understanding, it only highlights people’s ignorance or perverse natures.
When I first began to read ‘The Western Front’ I didn’t bother with reviews or even the blurb at the back of the book. At first I imagined the characters to be British or French, not realising they were German until a few pages in. This unassuming approach is what ultimately left the biggest impression on me and I would encourage anyone who plans to read ‘The Western Front’ to do the same (although you probably shouldn’t have read this review).
“History is written by the victors” is a commonly touted phrase in history; ‘The Western Front’ is a must-read simply for not being about the victor. Who won is not even important to the story. Even the names of the battles aren’t mentioned. Its inconsequential. The nationality of the soldiers are interchangeable, as are the battles they fought.
There is no talk of nationalism, racism or even ‘good vs bad’. There is just the lingering feeling that all too often we are reduced to expendable pawns in a game of Chess between giants.
Maybe I should’ve opened the review with that…