Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Reflections on All Quiet on the Western Front

by Bryan Alexander

“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.” (263)

“My subject is War, and the pity of War.” - Wilfred Owen

All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues,1928) is probably the best known work of prose fiction written in any language to emerge from the First World War. From its first appearance, the novel kicked off Remarque’s lifelong literary career. It was influential enough in its antiwar message to earn special and deadly ire from the Nazis, who took care to lethally prosecute the author’s sister, Elfriede Scholz.It has been filmed (1932,1979) and referenced repeatedly by war writers ever since. It serves for many as the 20th-century great war novel. I believe the novel has remained in print since 1928.

What does the novel tell us now, in 2018, during this centenary of World War I?

For those who haven’t read it, All Quiet on the Western Front follows our narrator, Paul Baumer, and his group of fellow soldiers (Kat, Tjaden, Muller, and more) as they fight, survive, suffer, and (most of them) die in the trenches against British and French enemies.  The text’s focus is very small, zeroing in on this handful of people. We see little of campaigns and strategies. There isn’t much contextual detail. Instead, Remarque gives us a microcosm of the war through an account of daily life within it. 

There isn’t much of an overarching plot as such, although there are many small stories, and Paul’s experience offers something of a frame. The novel doesn’t offer much of a sense of forward motion or progress but instead consists mostly of a series of episodes or short-short stories that might remind us of subsequent works like Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book The Things They Carried. Baumer endures a bombardment, is sequestered in a hospital, hunts rats, travels home on leave, falls in love with a French woman, complains about food, enjoys free time on latrines, and so on. The most famous episodes, like the confrontation with a French soldier in a shell hole, can stand on their own.

Remarque’s style is clear and simple, accessible to any reader, at times lyrical and passionate. He can offer elegant, heartbreaking passages like this:

One morning two butterflies play in front of our trench.  They are brimstone-butterflies, with red spots on their yellow wings.  What can they be looking for here?  There is not a plant nor a flower for miles.  They settle on the teeth of a skull. (126)

Or this:

How long has it been?  Weeks - months - years?  Only days.  We see time pass in the colorless faces of the dying, we cram food into us, we run, we throw, we shout, we kill, we lie about, we are feeble and spent, and nothing supports us but the knowledge that there are still feebler, still more spent, still more helpless [new recruits] who, with staring eyes, look upon us as gods that escape death many times.(133)

Remarque After He Was Drafted
Readers interested in World War One can extract a good amount of historical detail from the novel.  Trench life appears throughout in good detail. Artillery bombardment episodes are terrifying. Other historical characteristics appear, as when the novel touches on Germans’ starvation thanks to the Entente’s blockade, as, for example, we learn of new recruits who previously lived mostly on turnips (36), or we follow the narrator and his sister in a long line “to get a pound or two of bones.  That is a great favor” (179).  Baumer’s unit spends time near a Russian prison camp, giving us a hint of the terrible Eastern Front and of defeated Russians (189ff).  Later there is a glimpse of the shock of first encountering tanks:

From a mockery the tanks have become a terrible weapon.  Armored they come rolling on in long lines, more than anything else embody for us the horror of war… these tanks are machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war, they are annihilation, they roll without feeling into the craters, and climb up again without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armor-clads, invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and the wounded - we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their colossal weight our arms are sticks of straw, and our hand-grenades matches. (262)

In the final chapters we see 1918 and the beginning of German defeat:

Out lines are falling back.  There are too many fresh English and American regiments over there.  There’s too much corned beef and white wheaten bread.  Too many new guns.  Too many aeroplanes. (290)

One theme familiar to readers of WWI poetry and fiction is the gap between soldier and civilian, between those who experience war and those who promote it. Remarque doesn’t neglect this, as one can see in an early passage: “We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than [their elders’]… While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying.  While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already know that death throes are stronger.  But for all that we were no mutineers…” (12–13; yet see below). Spending time in a field hospital and overwhelmed by horror at woundings and deaths, Paul muses:

How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible.  It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. (263).

Here we also get a sense of the civilizational shock of the Great War, how radically it ruptured Europe’s sense of itself as the acme of progress. 

All Quiet on the Western Front offers a powerful and clear picture of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, but which the Allies then referred to as “shell shock”. Remarque emphasizes the psychological transformation Baumer and his peers experienced, which would shatter the rest of their lives. Paul describes the break between his civilian and postwar lives in terms of different wants: "…memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow - a vast, in apprehensible melancholy.  Once we had such desires - but they return not.  They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us…" (121)

The novel’s treatment of PTSD as not just a psychological symptom but as human destruction might be its strongest theme. It’s announced right from the start with an opening note: “This book…will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Toward the novel’s end Baumer reflects on himself: “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.” (263). On the penultimate page: “if we go back [home] we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.  We will not be able to find our way anymore.  And men will not understand us…” (294)

All Quiet on the Western Front is famous for not only depicting one war but also encouraging the reader to oppose war in general. Time and again passages argue for war’s futility and uselessness. In a famous scene the soldiers around Paul dissect the reasons for war and show them to be groundless, even surreal or silly:

‘A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France.  Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.’

‘Are you really as stupid as that, or are you just pulling my leg?’ growls Kropp.  ‘I don’t mean that at all.  One people offends the other -‘

‘Then I haven’t any business here at all,’ replies Tjaden.  ‘I don’t feel myself offended…’” (204)
Elsewhere the Russians in detention aren’t terrible foes but desperate, kind, and nearly holy fellow people.’

‘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 every crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severs 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.’ 

Immediately after those sentences Remarque shifts register to sound a strongly anti-authoritarian note: “Any noncommissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us.” (194–5). Here we see how far Europe has come from the regimented social order of 1914, and gives us a hint of postwar unrest to come. Here is a true “lost generation”. This theme of near-rebellion builds through the novel.  Toward the end, Baumer rails:

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 more refined and enduring.  And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world are experiencing these things with me. (263)
Recall his earlier pledge to not be a mutineer when he continues:

What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account?  What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over?  Through the years our business has been killing… Our knowledge of life is limited to death.  What will happen afterwards?  And what shall come out of us? (263-4)

More openly, later: “If there is not peace, then there will be revolution.” (293). That extreme claim, is defused in the next chapter, but its inclusion among an account of the discipline-intensive German army is as astonishing glimpse of how far things had fallen by 1918. 

All these themes are heightened by the novel’s famous conclusion, its last four sentences, where the title appears for the first time, and which I won’t spoil here.

Seen among its contemporaries, All Quiet on the Western Front has much in common with British antiwar writing. The tonal and thematic connections are clear. Episodes echo in verse, like Baumer’s shell crater encounter with a Poilu and Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”. There are connections as well to the great British memoirs, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929). Like Brittain, Remarque concludes with a pacifist message.  

American readers would find a similar theme and intensity of expression in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939). The German novel has a great deal in common with Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear (1930), which presents a similar approach: a narrator and a small group of fellow soldiers, brutal and intense frontline fighting. More precisely, Fear may owe a great deal to All Quiet.

It differs greatly from more adventure-themed contemporary novels. Remarque and Ernst J√ľnger both served on the Western Front, and Storm of Steel (1920) is a very different novel, often emphasizing the heroism of overcoming challenges and a sense of personal satisfaction. John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916) is almost diametrically opposed to All Quiet, as it features an exciting espionage plot conducted from the highest reaches of the British command. There is suffering, but clearly in a good cause.

Considering literature and the past generation of historiography, we can see All Quiet as a fine novel that passionately takes one side in the great arguments over the first World War.  There is no ultimate good to be achieved by the horrors Paul Baumer and his fellows endure. They don’t experience a learning curve of adapting to modern war. Instead, they represent the breakdown of Europe’s prewar order and the insurrectionist spirit it released. Remarque throws down a gauntlet to war and its leaders. Many subsequent creators and analysts have picked it up, but not all. It remains World War One’s great novel.


  1. Perhaps Remarque sums it up the best in his mini-preamble, "This book is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war."

  2. An excellent selection for the blog. Thanks

  3. Ironic that this great pacifist made World War II inevitable by encouraging the appeasers in France and the U.K. at the same time as it acted as a prod to German pride which resulted in the rise of Hitler.

  4. An excellent review of an outstanding book. I appreciate your varied perspectives, many of which I missed while reading the book. I will have to re-read it now.

    1. Thank you, Clark.
      It really does reward rereading.