Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translation from German by A W Wheen. Original German publication Ullstein A G, 1928. English translation Random House, New York, 1929. F; 10/16.
Among the most famous and widely-read modern war stories, I didn’t know that this World War I tale was written from the German point of view. It’s stunningly horrifying and realistic, physically and psychologically.
Paul Baumer is a young soldier fighting alongside friends from school and others met in combat. Relentless focus on their experiences and not much context as far as the overall war is concerned is the main driver of the story’s dramatic impact. Paul is repeatedly exposed directly to shelling, sniper fire, and hand-to-hand combat usually at night, and is always frightened and desperate. Supplies are meagre and in many less-deadly scenes the soldiers conspire to steal food. Paul returns to his family in a German city on leave and eventually spends time injured in a hospital. His war experiences put him at odds with civilians at home who have a hopelessly unrealistic understanding of the conflict.
Eventually all the original group of soldiers is killed, and Paul himself dies just before the end of the war.
I think part of the success of this amazing story comes from its being an early successful attempt to force readers on both sides of the war to understand that, far from continuing the romantic formalities of battles in previous centuries, modern warfare (even 100 years ago and of course everything since) was anything but glorious and was filled much more with hideous arbitrary death and, among those who survived, personal inner damage, than with acts of honour and courage. There is also probably one of the earliest and best expositions of disorientation and (we would now say) PTSD among soldiers returning from the front.
…a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there my case of butterflies, and there the mahogany piano – but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.
(Before the war) I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.
A very good read. Gripped with its terrible realism and unaffected style I read it quickly and couldn’t put it down. 9.0/8.8.