Recently I read an article about the topics you should avoid when speaking to a foreigner, depending on his country of origin. Unsurprisingly, the most popular topic one should never mention in front of a German is World War II. Germans are quite sensitive about Hitler, the concentration camps, and the Jews and they don’t like discussing it or even mentioning it. However, this is the single most violent event of the 20th century and I barely know a person who has no or little opinion on it. After all, Bulgaria has spend 500 years under the Turkish yoke, but I still don’t mind talking about racial issues and confrontations. Despite this German peculiarity (along with their many many other peculiarities, which I simply don’t get) one of the authors who talks most exhaustively about World War II is exactly German. I present you Erich Maria Remarque.
A few weeks back a friend of mine, whose literary opinion I greatly admire, asked me an interesting question: “Is there a single author, whose complete works you have read?” I thought about it for a long time, and although I have read quite a few novels from Dostoyevsky, I cannot actually say I read it all. I don’t even believe it is possible to read it all. Then she suggested I read all (or most of what) Erich Maria Remarque has written. I was ashamed to say that I hadn’t read anything and I haven’t even the slightest idea what, how, and why he writes. She immediately corrected my mistake and gave me quite a few books. The result is that a new era is about to hit Read with Style. Starting from today, I am going to read solely Remarque for the following months. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to bore you or to present you with only one side of literature. I believe my blog has been quite diverse so far, so I feel it is time for me to focus on a particular subject, or on a particular author. I start with A Time to Love and a Time to Die, not one of Remarque’s most famous novels but certainly a very good first impression for the German-born author.
War is heroic, war is noble, war is protecting the superior Arian race. At least that is what gestapo was trying to promote to the common people during World War II and especially close to Germany’s defeat. It is difficult (or almost) impossible to believe so when you are bombarded almost every other day, when you lose your house and your family, when your son/husband/father is fighting and dying on the front. Set through the eyes of a simple soldier, Ernst Graeber, the novel explores the cruelty of the war, the hypocrisy of the leaders, and the disillusionment of the people. Soldiers have no other choice but to go and fight for the cause. No one asks them whether they want to or whether they believe in it. No one gives them a choice. Some of them are born and raised under the Nazi rule. They believe in the postulates of the Party, they believe of the superiority of the Arian race, and they foolishly obey any order given to them. They are cruel, stupid, and ignorant. Yet they drive the Party and they cherish its development. Others, like Graeber, they think. They analyze what they have been told, they compare to the reality on the front and they realize the fatuity of the war, the hopelessness of the situation, and the unbelievable cruelty of the Party officials. Graeber attempts to stay patriotic even when he returns for a deserved leave after two years spend on the front. However, when he sees the damages the war has done to his closest people, when he falls in love with a girl, whose father suffers in a concentration camp, when he meets his old teacher hiding or his friends dying in the hospitals, he begins to question the purpose of it all.
There is a time to die but there is also a time to love. Unfortunately, soldiers are not given that choice. They are not given a choice at all. The hardest thing is to realize that what you are doing is cruel, purposeless, and doomed but yet to continue doing it because you have no other choice. The hardest thing is to know that you only have a couple of weeks to fall in love, to get married, to experience this love, and to separate. The hardest thing is to be completely unaware of the state of your parents and relatives. The hardest part is seeing your friends die and being unable to help them. The hardest thing is witnessing foolish and ignorant bootlickers, who have memorized Mein Kampf without understanding it, climb easily the stairs of power and influence. The hardest thing is seeing injustice and being absolutely helpless to change it. Yet, this was life for Graeber and for many others like him. War was not fair and it never will be. War doesn’t ask you whether it is time to love or to die. War doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. And war doesn’t care about what is fair or not. It is just war and it is a time to die.
Needless to repeat myself, my favorite subject is indeed World War II. The previous three novels I reviewed here, Sarah’s Key, The Book Thief, and The Diary of Anne Frank focused on the personal sufferings of three children in different Nazi occupied countries. However, Remarque enriched me with a totally different perspective – the sufferings and the inner conflicts of the soldier, the main driver of the war. A driver that sometimes doesn’t understand the war, doesn’t believe in the war, even hates the war. A soldier that wants to love but it is actually his time to die.