I am quite astonished that The Road Back is much less known than its famous prequel All Quiet on the Western Front. For me The Road Back is a heartbreaking story, that left me crying myself quietly to sleep in the middle of the night. In All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque was not quite himself – the author I know for dissecting human relationships and for philosophizing about life and love. Instead he was focused exclusively on the grotesqueness, violence and fatuity of war that leaves young men physically and emotionally crippled.
In The Road Back Erich Maria Remarque is again the author I fell in love with. The story begins during the last few days of WWI, a short time after All Quiet on the Western Front ended. Although it doesn’t feature the same characters (with the exception of Tjaden) in The Road Back many of the soldiers from All Quiet on the Western Front are mentioned…but they are already dead.
The war has ended and a young German soldier and his friends are returning home to a world they no longer know or understand. On the front they developed a camaraderie, a friendship that kept them going through the missiles, the shells and the bullets. On the front they dreamed of coming home – to their parents, to their room, to their girl or wife. And yet this dream seems to be much more real than the reality itself.
Upon returning Ernst and his friends realize they no longer belong to this world. They are bitter and disillusioned. The young soldiers left for the war excited and motivated – they believed they were fighting for their fatherland, for their honor, for their families. They returned feeling betrayed and used – realizing they were dying for someone else’s pride and interests. Their town no longer feels like home, their parents no longer feel like family, and their girls are not the girls they fell in love with. The corruptness of society crushes these young men – they left as boys to fight for Germany and they return as men, for whom there is no longer a place under the sun.
Many of them dream of the front – at least there they had a place, a mission, friends, a sense of belonging. In the real world everything is turned upside down. A skillful soldier on the front is a poor shoemaker, while the one whom everyone protected on the battlefield is now looked upon to – a rich businessman. The boys that fought and died for their country are not revered as heroes – they are left poor and crippled to pick up the pieces left from their lives. Society doesn’t take responsibility for facilitating their transition to life, failing to realize that what they have suffered and endured fighting cannot be easily erased or forgotten.
Ernst and his friends hopelessly wander around, trying to make sense of it all, to find a purpose to live. Some of them go back to their old jobs, realizing they are now only fit to fight and kill. Others try to revive past relationships, which have long ago died. And there are those that just give up.
I was deeply moved by The Road Back because it painfully portrays the ruined life of a bunch of boys, whose only guilt was that they were born in the wrong time and in the wrong place. Had they waited a few more years, they would have missed it all. And yet humanity has the great quality of never learning from its mistakes – soon the violence and pain of the war is forgotten and a new set of boys is being trained to fight for ideals that do not exist. I kept thinking while reading – what can cure this sense of fatuity and despair in these young boys? And yet, as the characters themselves, I couldn’t find another answer except time. Ernst realizes something similar at the end – he must wait, and endure, and the pain will slowly go away. Most probably he would never be happy…but what is happiness afterwards? He would go on living, one step at a time, hoping for nothing and expecting nothing, but just being content to be alive. And soon some form of calmness will fall upon him. For there is no escape and no returning back from the memory of war – it is forever inscribed on the soul – and one can do as much as to learn to live with it.
More from Erich Maria Remarque: