Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front' sold millions of copies worldwide. It portrays German soldiers' experiences during WWI, but many say it relates to all soldiers, describing the horrors of war, which transcend time and place.
There are countless novels about epic battles and famous wars, but Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is arguably the most definitive work of fiction about World War I, and many even call it the greatest war novel of all time. That may seem like an exaggeration to you, but after learning more about this novel, I hope you will pick up a copy to decide for yourself.
Focusing on soldiers' horrific experiences enduring trench warfare, Remarque's novel draws from his own experiences and the experiences of other soldiers who served in the German army during WWI. Remarque was drafted into WWI at 18 and served on the Western Front but was wounded. While in the hospital with other soldiers, Remarque learned of their experiences, which helped inspire his best-selling novel.
All Quiet on the Western Front was published in German and in English in 1928 and was Remarque's first book. It was an instant success, though there were critics who said he was betraying his country by painting such a grim picture of the German war effort. However, countless others have argued that the novel portrays the common soldier's experience and, ultimately, his nationality doesn't matter.
Unfortunately, in the early 1930s, the negative reaction to Remarque's book grew in Germany when the Nazis came to power. In 1933, they burned the book and the film that was based on it in front of Berlin University. But, it still continued to do well, selling millions of copies around the world.
The style Remarque used to write All Quiet on the Western Front is often linked to the school of new objectivity, which was a popular post-war style that attempted to create a realistic portrayal and rejected the idea of romanticizing events, which would have glorified them. Remarque adopted this style by using graphic language and gruesome details, while refusing to romanticize the war. He didn't want to paint a picture of illustrious heroes. He wanted to show what it was really like for so many soldiers. As we discuss the novel's plot and themes, keep in mind Remarque's use of new objectivity.
Paul Bäumer Becomes a Soldier
All Quiet on the Western Front is narrated by a young protagonist named Paul Bäumer. The novel begins with 19-year-old Paul already on the front lines, but it includes a bit of backstory about how Paul was inspired to enlist in the German army alongside some of his classmates. They were inspired to do so after hearing the patriotic speeches of their teacher Kantorek. Paul and his friends went through basic training, putting up with the detestable Corporal Himmelstoss, who is the most hated disciplinarian in the training camps. But they get through it and are sent to the Western Front.
The Western Front, which stretched over 400 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea, was made up of a zigzagging line of trenches, dugouts and barbed wire fences that moved very little from 1914-1918. Paul and his friends realize that the patriotic ideals that inspired them to join are meaningless on the battlefield. They no longer believe that fighting in the war is honorable and glorious because they are simply trying to survive.
The Realities of War
After two weeks of fighting on the front, only 80 men of the 150-man company come back. Paul and his friends visit Kemmerich, a former classmate who has contracted gangrene after having his leg amputated. Paul's friend wants Kemmerich's boots when he dies. Although this may seem insensitive, Paul realizes good boots are hard to come by, and the boots are passed on when Kemmerich dies. This event, like many others, shows how Paul and his friends are forced to disconnect from emotions, like grief, sympathy, and fear, so that they can stay focused on surviving.
Another notable friend of Paul's is Stanislaus Katczinsky, or Kat, as he's often called. Kat is 40-years-old when the novel begins and has a family at home. He is resourceful and has a knack for finding food, clothing, and blankets, which are often in short supply. Paul and Kat become best friends.
When Paul and his friends are talking over some stew that Kat finds, they discuss the war. One of Paul's friends says that the leaders of different countries should fight out their differences with clubs. They talk about how petty and power-hungry people are.
Another soldier tells them that the cruel Corporal Himmelstoss has been ordered to come fight on the front lines. They all like the idea of Himmelstoss having to suffer like them after what he put them through during basic training. But when he arrives, Himmelstoss is deeply humbled by the bloody battles.
One night, Paul and the rest of his company go on a dangerous mission to lay barbed wire at the front. They hide in a graveyard to escape artillery fire, but the force of the shelling causes the buried bodies to emerge from their graves. Luckily, they all survive, but after another gory battle, only 32 of 80 men are left.
When they're able to rest, Paul and his friends go for a swim where they have a little rendezvous with some French girls. Paul struggles with all that he's experienced and finds he's no longer an innocent teen.
Paul gets to go on leave but has a difficult time visiting his family. His mother is dying of cancer, and he feels alone. He's unable to talk about what he's been through with his proud but oblivious family. One piece of news that he finds a bit satisfying is that his old teacher Kantorek, who pressured him and his friends to enlist, has been called up to serve on the front lines.
Before returning for duty, Paul goes to a training camp that's near a group of Russian prisoners of war. Paul doesn't see the Russians as enemies and can't understand how war can make people into enemies when they don't have a grudge against each other.
Paul Faces Death
When Paul is back in battle, he has to hide in a shell hole. A French soldier also jumps in the hole, and Paul instinctively stabs the man to death. Paul feels very guilty, looks through the soldier's belongings and learns that his name was Gérard Duval. He had a wife and child. This only makes him feel worse and he later tells his friends, but there's little they can do to console him.
As the German army begins to lose the war, Paul's friends are killed in battle one after the other. Paul's best friend, Kat, is wounded. Paul tries to carry him to safety but some shrapnel slices Kat's head open while Paul is carrying him, and Paul realizes Kat is dead when he puts him down.
By the fall of 1918, Paul is the only one of his circle of friends who is still alive. There is talk that the Germans may surrender, but Paul knows he won't be able to handle peace since all he knows is the war.
In October 1918, just as the war is coming to a definite end, and on a day with little fighting, Paul is killed. He is found to have a calm expression, as if he's relieved. The army report simply states: 'All quiet on the Western Front.'
One of the main themes from this novel is the cheapness of human life. When Kemmerich contracts gangrene and dies, his boots are given to another friend. They are continually passed on when a soldier dies so that another soldier can use them. The boots convey how brief their lives are and how every fallen soldier becomes just another man who wore those boots. The boots outlast the men, thus becoming more valuable and durable than life itself.
Another important theme is humanity vs. animal instinct. Paul's friendships and strong sense of loyalty help preserve humanity. When Kat is injured, Paul tries to carry him to safety despite the danger around them. One man loyally standing by another and helping him in need is portrayed in many ways throughout the novel. However, every soldier is stripped of his humanity at some point when animal instincts kick in for the sake of survival. Paul instinctively kills the French soldier Gerard Duval, who jumps into the same shell hole. His friends can do little to console him because they have also experienced the guilt of killing people for the sake of self-preservation.
To sum up what we have discussed, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel that conveys the horrors of WWI from the German soldier's perspective. Remarque's novel was an instant success when it was published in 1928, but some critics felt he was betraying his country by casting German soldiers' experiences in such a negative light. However, the novel is ultimately about any soldier's experience and has since been recognized as the greatest war novel.
Remarque writes using new objectivity, which was a popular post-war style that attempted to create a realistic portrayal and rejected the idea of romanticizing events, which would have glorified them. Instead of painting a picture of courageous war heroes, Remarque vividly describes soldiers' gruesome experiences and their struggles to suppress emotions in an effort to merely survive.
Paul Bäumer is a 19-year-old German soldier who volunteered to serve in the army thanks to the patriotic speeches of his teacher. Once Paul and his classmates are sent to the Western Front, they realize that there is no glory in war. When Paul's friend Kemmerich, a former classmate and friend, dies from gangrene after having his leg amputated, the reality of war sets in.
Paul and his friends often discuss food and supply shortages, what life was like before the war, and what they hope it is like after. Through these conversations, we get to know his friends, most notably Kat, who is resourceful and becomes Paul's best friend.
Two important themes conveyed are: the cheapness of human life, which is shown through the way the boots are passed on every time a soldier dies, and humanity vs. animal instinct, which is illustrated through the friendships that uphold loyalty and morality, while the war forces the soldiers to resort to animal instincts in order to survive.
Ultimately, Paul is left alone after all of his friends die throughout the war. He dies, too, on a day with little fighting in October of 1918, right before the war ends.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify Erich Maria Remarque's experience with war
- Describe the plot of Remarque's WWI novel All Quiet on the Western Front
- Explain the major themes of the novel