The centenary of the First World War hangs over the next few years. This anniversary is prompting new academic writing, literature, television and radio, which reflect on the war and the impact it has on us today. Whilst all these mediums shed light on the events of those dreadful four years and their aftermath, it is important to revisit the sources of the time to unearth the realities of the war, and the experiences of those directly involved.
All Quiet on the Western Front, was published in 1928 and is based on the frontline experiences of its author, Erich Maria Remarque. He was conscripted into the German army in 1917 at the age of eighteen. The text was extremely popular when first published, selling over one and a half million copies in 1929. It was also made into an Academy Award winning film in 1930. The novel is a fascinating source that presents the perspective that most British readers are least familiar with – that of the ‘enemy’, the Germans. Remarque begins the novel with a disclaimer of sorts:
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure… It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
The text professes the confusing juxtaposition of the extremes of quasi-modern warfare: utter boredom and constant fear of a violent and painful death. The men go from endlessly waiting, smoking, talking and killing millions of lice, to being pushed over the top straight into hand-to-hand combat, fighting to the death with men who mirror them in almost every way apart from their language. Through the exploration of these poles of warfare, the novel encapsulates both terror and tranquillity.
Images in the text veer violently between those of beauty, nature and camaraderie, and those of death, destruction and the immense pity of war. Any reader, at any point in this novel’s existence, will be aware that the Germans lost and were blamed for the war; the allies are seen as the heroes and the Germans generally as a homogenised evil invader. However, All Quiet undermines this by unbinding the blur of ‘evil’ German soldiers into individuals with same hopes, dreams and extreme fear as the opposing armies’. Remarque detaches the common soldiers from those giving the orders, adding perspective and allowing the reader to engage in both sides of the story.
Like much of the literature of the war, All Quiet captures the futility and unpredictability of the conflict. Characters you have got to know through the course of the text are suddenly dead, wounded, or gassed, torn from your imagination as those whom they represent were torn from reality a hundred years ago. Its stark depiction of war made it a censored and publicly burned book following the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. Nevertheless, it has survived the test of time and still resonates with modern readers. It is a staple of war literature and will remain in the historical literary cannon, I hope, for years to come.
Image: Amanda Slater