All’s Quiet on the Western Front

Every now and again, I come across something that reminds me how powerful the written word can be. There’s a handful of books (and the occasional movie) that have really affected the way I see the world and the way I think about certain topics. I recently finished All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The book was originally published in German during the late 1920s and it follows one German foot soldier’s narration of World War I. Remarque’s language is incredibly eloquent and powerful, even after going through the sieve of a translation into English. There are passages about the horrors of war that made me genuinely squeamish, and there are others that made me honestly sad for the fate of this man and his companions. The writing is simple, but powerful and effective.
For the most part, the book steers clear of the larger questions of war, which are usually cast in terms of politics, ideologies, or religion. Instead, the author gives us a raw, stinging look at the life (and more often than not, death) of German infantrymen, and what war means to the people actually fighting it in the trenches.
There is one memorable passage where the narrator Paul is caught behind enemy lines, trapped in a mud-filled crater left behind by a mortar shell. When an enemy Frenchman stumbles into the hole with him, Paul brutally stabs the man out of panic and savage lust for survival. After he comes to his senses, he tries desperately to save the mortally wounded Frenchman, and spends another day pinned down in the hole with him. When the other man dies, the German infantryman obsesses over his victim, reading his journal, vowing to become a printer like him, and promising to write to the man’s widowed wife and to explain to her why he killed her husband and how sorry he had become. Paul clings to these fantasies, but when he is finally able to flee the shell hole the next day, the tides of war wash them from his mind. The whole thing is incredibly sad and moving.
The narrator in “All Quiet” once commented that if the politicians and Generals who waged war were to sit in the trenches and live like foot soldiers for one day, there would never be any more war –EVER. While I don’t hold the idea of a just war as an impossibility, I suspect he’s right. It has certainly crystalized my attitudes towards the wars that my own country’s politicians are waging. They should read this book, too.

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