Remarque should not be read all at once – most of his novels are quite similar and even though he is one of my most favorite authors ever, I admit that the characters are now blurred in my mind into one picture – a man and a woman affected by the war in one way or another, desperate and despaired, fall in love in the most unusual fashion. Their relationship is passionate, philosophical and always tragic. They spent endless nights drinking, eating and talking about the nature and purpose of life.
All Quiet on the Western Front is sharply different. One of the first attempts in writing of the author focuses exclusively and entirely on the German soldiers during the First World War and is rightly proclaimed one of the greatest anti-war novels of all times. In his subsequent works Remarque continues opposing the war somewhat peripherally but All Quiet on the Western Front is his open and honest rebellion against one of the most disastrous “invention” of humanity.
I remember a picture I saw on the internet – a shark and a diver are swimming in the sea. The caption below reads: Above you will see the most dangerous animal on the earth. Next to it a shark is swimming peacefully. This most dangerous animal on earth is central to Remarque’s criticism in All Quiet on the Western Front. The author himself was sent to the Western front at the age of 18th and large parts of the novel can be seen as autobiographical. He vividly and in detail describes the horror of the war – 20 something boys are sent to fight and are transformed into men over a night. They don’t have a childhood, or a youth. The extreme physical and mental distress of the war combined with the utter detachment from civilian life upon their return home, transform them into mere shadows of human beings.
The lost generation. Just out of high school, these boys don’t have a profession, a wife, children. All they know from their conscious life are trenches, grenades, blood and death. Upon returning from combat, they are disillusioned and lost in a world they don’t know. The older men can return to their jobs and families, but these young boys have to return to a nothingness and start building their life from scratch. Remarque skillfully describes a generation that survived the war and yet was destroyed by it. These soldiers go through extreme mortal situations and yet the peace and calm of home for them seems an even harder battle.
Through the eyes of the narrator Paul Baumer and his friends, Remarque asks the inevitable yet unanswerable questions. Why does war exist? Who decides to fight? Can both we and the enemies be right if both our and their government claim to be right? How come some men sign some papers and then a bunch of young boys go and die in their place? What would we have done different if it was us deciding whether to fight or not? How can a country hate another country? Can a mountain in France hate a mountain in Germany?
One episode stands out vividly in my mind. Paul Baumer is in combat, hiding in one of the trenches, when an enemy jumps in there with him. Instinctively, to protect his life, Baumer stabs deadly the enemy soldier. And then starts taking care of him – covering his wounds, bringing him water, apologizing, and promising to write to his family. This is one of the contradictions of war, that leaves these boys confused and lost – you have to kill to survive and yet you feel a deep compassion for your enemy, whose only fault was that he was born on the opposite side of the conflict.
All Quiet on the Western Front is bitterly honest and touching. In simple words and simple situations it describes the violence and fatuity of war, which leaves millions of men crippled both physically and mentally or…dead. At the end of the day, there are no winners – just losers, some luckier than others.
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