Unlike truly historical works emphasizing the human side of war, for example, Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, in which the author provides highly detailed accounts of historical events through the eyes of participants leading to an objective treatment and analysis of those events, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a novelization of the experience of German soldiers in World War I. Remarque thus follows a literary line which includes William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and extends through cinematic efforts such as “The Big Red One” and “The Hurt Locker”, which utilize historical context in order to examine the transformative nature of war on those most intimately involved. Each work examines a central theme, e.g., patriotism, cowardice, social change, brotherhood, etc., interwoven with and supported by details of various wars.
The particular details chosen by the authors, with the possible exception of Tolstoy who seemingly left nothing out of his opus, are those lending support to that central theme. Thus, to understand the process used by Remarque in making his choice of which details of World War I to include in All Quiet on the Western Front, one must first ascertain his thesis and its origin. Referring to the biographical notes following the novel, we learn that Remarque “was himself in combat during World War I, and was wounded five times, the last time very severely (Remarque, 1928, p. 297).” That during the time of his service Remarque was near the age of his protagonist, Paul Baumer, suggests an autobiographical nature to the novel and lends credence to the story that no second hand account could provide. Yet Remarque does not take the opportunity to provide closure to his experience or to provide a set of objective conclusions to the war.
Drawing again from the biographical notes, Remarque possessed “intense determination to concentrate in his fiction upon the worst horrors of the age, war and inhumanity (Remarque, 1928, p. 297)”. Three major themes can be found within All Quiet on the Western Front combining to support Remarque’s ideology – the legitimacy of statehood, the futility of war, and the dehumanizing effects of war. Given his experiences and his viewpoint, what details did Remarque expound upon and to what purpose? In a discussion among the soldiers as to the origins of the war, they openly question the authority by which war was declared. When Tjaden asks how wars begin, Albert answers, “Mostly by one country badly offending another (Remarque, 1928, p. 205).” Yet it is this notion of country which perplexes the most. In Europe’s past, wars were fought over disputes between smaller nation states by order and to the benefit of local rulers.
This was clearly not the case in World War I, a fact not lost on the soldiers: “But what I would like to know,” says Albert, “is whether there would have been a war if the Kaiser had said No.” “I’m sure there would,” I (Paul) interject, “he was against it from the first (Remarque, 1928, p. 203).” What the soldiers had not yet come to terms with was the rampant nationalism that had swept Europe. Rising from the Industrial Revolution, nurtured by the Atlantic revolutions, and spurred by the globalization of trade, Europeans of smaller states set aside their notions of subjects under a common ruling dynasty to a sense of unity among peoples bound by blood, customs and culture. “All of this encouraged political and cultural leaders to articulate an appealing of their particular nations and ensured a growing circle of people receptive to such ideas.
Thus the idea of “nation” was constructed or even invented, but it was often presented as an awakening of older linguistic or cultural identities (Strayer, 2011, p. 797).” Such were the notions the young schoolboys received from their schoolmaster Kantorek who spoke of country and honor before shepherding them to their enlistment. Yet, when those identities failed to adequately address the cultures affected, as in Austria-Hungary, nationalism failed to suppress dissent. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, by a Serbian nationalist, the system of rigid alliances established among the emerging nations plunged the world into war (Strayer, 2011, p. 979). After further reflection, the soldiers began to understand how they came to be in a war whose causes could not be satisfactorily explained by patriotism alone:
“State and home-country, there’s a big difference.” (Kat) “But they go together,” insists Kropp, “Without the State there wouldn’t be a home country (Remarque, 1928, p. 205).” Remarque addresses the futility of war in various ways. He describes the effects of the material advantages of the Allies throughout the war, particularly following the entrance of American forces, foretelling defeat for Germany in a war of attrition: “Our lines are falling back. There are too many fresh English and American regiments over there. There’s too much corned beef and white wheaten bread. There are too many new guns. Too many aeroplanes. But we are emaciated and starved. Our food is bad and mixed with so much substitute stuff it makes us ill…..Our artillery is fired out, it has too few shells and the barrels are so worn that they shoot uncertainly and scatter so widely as even to fall on ourselves (Remarque, 1928, p. 280).”
Most tellingly, Remarque condemns the madness of trench warfare which “resulted in enormous casualties while gaining or losing only a few yards of muddy, blood-soaked ground (Strayer, 2011, p. 982).” Paul’s Company engages in a protracted, vicious trench battle in Chapter Six in which they are first driven back in retreat, regain the lost ground after an hour to eat, and push forward into the French trenches before realizing their new position is untenable. “The fight ceases. We lose touch with the enemy. We cannot stay here long but must retire under cover of our artillery to our own position (Remarque, 1928, p. 117).” In the end, it was everything ventured, nothing gained. The senseless loss of life on both sides and the indifference to the carnage is highlighted in his description of the battlefield itself. “The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them (Remarque, 1928, pp. 125-126).”
Lastly, Remarque relentlessly stresses the dehumanization of the soldiers throughout the course of the war. In his forward, Remarque makes his purpose for writing All Quiet on the Western Front clear: “It will try to simply tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war (Remarque, 1928, p. i).” The first step in the process comes with the realization that those shaping their future have done so with an agenda of their own. In speaking of Kantorek the schoolmaster and Corporal Himmelstoss, Paul reflects, “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future…the idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief (Remarque, 1928, p. 12).”
The second phase in the downward spiral is presented as the desensitization of the individual. Remarque portrays this through the soldier’s continued acceptance of the squalor of their condition. Through poor rations, living in mud filled trenches, and being in constant fear for their lives from regular shelling associated with trench warfare and from the use of a deadly new weapon, mustard gas, Paul and his comrades develop a detached persona which shields them from their hideous reality: “Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because it is the only thing which brings us through safely, so we turn into wags and loafer when we are resting…We want to live at any price so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they might be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here (Remarque, 1928, pp. 138-139).” A third phase lies in the objectification of the soldier by others.
Remarque best accomplishes this in his portrayal of medical treatment for the wounded. Early on, he establishes this premise through the death of Franz Kemmerich. A lack of supplies has denied him morphine to reduce his suffering. The higher than expected casualty count has begun to turn doctors into processors of human flesh: “One operation after another since five-o’clock this morning. You know, today alone there have been sixteen deaths – yours is the seventeenth. There will probably be twenty altogether – (Remarque, 1928, p. 32).” Kemmerich’s body is quickly processed: “We must take him away at once, we want the bed. Outside they are lying on the floor (Remarque, 1928, p. 32).” As the war drags on and casualties mount, the individual casualty becomes less a patient and more a number. Following an injury, Paul enters the hospital to learn of the latest advance in wartime triage: “A little room at the corner of the building. Whoever is about to kick the bucket is put in there.
There are two beds in it. It is generally called the Dying Room. They don’t have much work to do afterwards. It is more convenient, too, because it lies right beside the lift to the mortuary (Remarque, 1928, p. 257).” Through his experience in the hospital, Paul comes to a stark realization, and Remarque drives home his point: “A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is anything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is (Remarque, 1928, p. 263).”
The ultimate phase is the transition of the soldier from object to invisibility. Paul’s death, and the “matter if fact” manner in which Remarque presents it, stands in stark contrast to the official report of the day – “All quiet on the Western front. (Remarque, 1928, p. 296).” The fate of a man has been subordinated to the fate of a nation without the nation realizing his sacrifice.
Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque selects his details of World War I to support his themes decrying nationalism, the meaningless state of war, and the disintegration of the human spirit through the pursuit of warfare. No mention is made of specific battles or individual acts of heroism. The lack of specificity adds to the tone of the general, unyielding nature of war. Heroism, writ with a capital “H”, is a concept not to be found in Remarque’s world of war. In presenting his details of World War I, Remarque remains unyielding in his portrait of the destruction of the human condition on the altar of national pride.
Remarque, E. M. (1928). All quiet on the western front. Ballantine Books. Strayer, R. W. (2011). Ways of the world; a brief global history with sources, volume 2: Since 1500. 7th edition: Bedford/St. Martins.