Considered by many the greatest war novel of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front is Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece of the German experience during World War I.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. . . .
This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army during World War I. They become soldiers with youthful enthusiasm. But the world of duty, culture, and progress they had been taught breaks in pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches.
Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principle of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another . . . if only he can come out of the war alive.
The latter half of 2018 has found me struggling to finish books. I have a stack of a dozen half-finished books sitting next to my bed; it has just been a rough reading year. So it may seem understandable that I was hesitant to cater to the overwhelming urge to reread All Quiet on the Western Front. I mean….I had all these other books that I needed to finish. And I didn’t even own All Quiet on the Western Front. Good thing I broke down and picked up a copy at my local used bookstore because All Quiet on the Western Front is the first book I have finished in months.
I love this book.
I am a firm believer that you need to read specific things during certain times in your life. December 2018….I needed to read All Quiet on the Western Front. I was struggling folks because 2018 has been a year of necessary personal growth. I couldn’t read. I was stuck dealing with the typical stresses of the holiday season and having to deal with a significant amount of petty bullshit at work (I’m not even going to apologize for the language. It is what it is.) I was stuck in my own head desperately trying to identify my source of frustration. All Quiet on the Western Front brought me some much needed perspective. It starts:
“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even through they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
For those who don’t know….All Quiet of the Western Front is the fictional story of a German soldier, Paul Baumer, and his experiences on the Western Front during World War I. It was written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German man who fought in World War I. But it doesn’t matter that it is told from a German perspective because Paul’s experience (as I expect Remarque’s) is the same story told by other survivors of the Western Front be they German, British, Canadian, American, South African, Australian, New Zealander, Belgian, or French. It is a story of young men struggling to survive a life in mud filled trenches. Men covered in lice. Men gasping for breath as toxic gas rolled over shell holes filled with bloody water. Men desperate to go home only to struggle wth the banality of everything once back.
Remarque’s writing style effortless pulls readers through the emotional waves experienced by Paul. The prose is long and complex with an air of casual indifference when Paul is relaxing with his mates behind the front line. He happily describes his free time killing lice, hunting for extra food, and discussing with his friends the great mysteries of life. The prose subtly shifts to a choppier style as they near the front line. You can not help but feel the dull worry that Paul forces himself to ignore. And then he is on the front, crouching the mud and cringing at the whistling sounds of the artillery. The prose loses all sense of order; just choppy thoughts making it through the chaos and on to the page. You sit there on the edge of your seat, anxiously clutching the book, and willing Paul and his mates to make it through this fight. Then the writing slowly shifts back, and it is all done so effortlessly!
I laughed…I cried..and more importantly, I took a step back an reevaluated all the things in life that were making me feel stressed. None of it really seemed that important anymore; not compared to what I had just read.
READ IT. Just read it. And then go watch Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Take a moment to appreciate how these soldiers talk fondly of moments that us readers would find appalling. Their mindset, and that of Paul, helped me find the perspective I needed. To embrace the simplicity for as Paul says:
“I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this.”
I would love to hear your thoughts on All Quiet on the Western Front. Please share them here or on Instagram. And Happy New Year.