A long time ago I was the membership chairman for the Great War Society and had the pleasure of reviewing every membership application. Those forms included the standard question about what got the applicant interested in the First World War. By far, the most popular response was having read, or seen the movie version of, All Quiet on the Western Front. This wasn't too surprising to me then because both are classics of their form.
However, I recently picked up a copy of the book, which I had last read to prepare a book report for Mr. Finnegan's English Class in 1963 and have some new impressions. What struck me anew most powerfully was the appeal of the central character and main narrator, Paul Bäumer. From the opening passage, we know he is not going to pull any punches about how grim things are at the front, so we trust him completely as a commentator. We learn he's a good soldier: suffering without complaint, hard-edged and dutiful, and utterly faithful to his mates. Paul's special quality, though, is that he leaves us believing that—should we ever be caught in an impossibly inhuman situation like the Western Front, 1914–1918—it may still be possible to hold onto some threads of human decency. Below are some passages I liked, but, of course, my hope is that you will pick up the book and read it again.
|Paul's Unit Undergoing a Gas Attack|
We First Meet Paul in the Chow Line After 14 Days of Fighting
Our gang formed the head of the queue before the cookhouse. We were growing impatient, for the the cook paid no attention to us.
Finally Katczinsky called to him: "Say, Heinrich, open up the soup-kitchen. Anyone can see the beans are done."
He shook his head sleepily: "You must all be there first." Tjaden grinned: "We are ALL here."
The sergeant-cook still took no notice. "That may do for you," he said. "But where are the others?"
"They won't be fed by you today. There either in the dressing station or pushing up daisies."
The cook was quite disconcerted as the facts dawned on him. He was staggered. "And I have cooked for one hundred and fifty men ——"
Comradeship Under Fire
We are little flames poorly sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out. Then the muffled roar of the battle becomes a ring that encircles us, we creep in upon ourselves, and with big eyes stare into the night. Our only comfort is the steady breathing of our comrades asleep, and thus we wait for the morning.
Watching Some Russian POWs
An order has turned these silent figures into our enemies; an order could turn them into friends again. On some table, a document is signed by some people that none of us knows, and for years our main aim in life is the one thing that usually draws the condemnation of the whole world and incurs its severest punishment in law. […] Any drill-corporal is a worse enemy to the recruits, any schoolmaster a worse enemy to his pupils than they are to us.
Life at Home Is Now Repellent
It is so narrow, how can that fill a man’s life, he ought to smash it to bits. . . . They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise” . . .“I must think of Kat and Albert and Müller and Tjaden, what will they be doing?” Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless—I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end. I ought never to have come on leave.
Conversation with a Dead Frenchman
[Paul has just bayoneted a soldier who jumped in his trench and is dying alongside.]
|The Scene from the Film Version|
The silence spreads. I talk, I have to talk. So I talk to him and tell him directly, ‘I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in here again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response
– it was the concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I see your wife, and you face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, camarade! We always realize too late.