Heartbreaking: All Quiet on the Western Front

894862The Classics Club’s theme for the month of June is World War I, and I took this as the opportunity to read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I’m glad I finally read it; I should have done it long ago.

It took me a little while to get into the story, and I would argue that you can tell by the style that the book was written several decades ago. Nevertheless, it was a heartbreaking and very moving reading experience.

Remarque notes at the beginning that he wrote the book without political agenda, and I think he succeeds very well. Paul Boehmer, who fights on the side of the Germans and is thus part of the aggressor, could be any one soldier in the war. He is first and foremost not a German, but a young man who is scared, who sees his friends die, who is forced to shoot at a faceless enemy, and who has very little hope for his future. He fights for his life all the while knowing that in the opposite trench there are young men just like him, forced to fight for their lives, too.

The matter-of-fact style of this book contrasted very sharply with the content. For me, that made the impact so much greater. Throughout the book, Paul talks about how removed he has become emotionally from the death, injury, and loss that surrounds him. He cannot allow himself to dwell on the horror because he is afraid of what will happen to him if he does. I experienced the same detachment because of the way the book was written, all the while being horrified by what I was reading about. At one point, I looked up from the book and was surprised to see my quiet and sunny backyard, rather than a muddy, foggy battlefield torn up by an endless barrage of bombs. That’s when I realized how deeply I was affected by what I was reading.

The other impression that stayed with me was the hopelessness that the characters were experiencing. Paul continuously wonders how he might be able to adjust to life after the war. When he is home on leave, he is unable to relate to his family; memories of how life used to be are painful because life will never be that easy again. He has lost respect for many of his role models because they were the ones who encouraged him to go to war. And any plans he might have had for his life have been destroyed by his experiences at the front.

Sadly, even though one can argue that World War I was the most gruesome war in recent history, the emotions in this book are reflected in so many other accounts of the wars that have come since—both fictional and non-fictional. In this sense, All Quiet on the Western Front is certainly a timeless classic.

Earlier this year, Ellie compiled a list of WWI books that deserve attention. It was the first time I heard about Not So Quiet… by Helen Zenna Smith. I followed her recommendation, and my review of that book will come next.

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19 comments

  1. I actually had to read this book in my grade 10 class and let me tell you; it was my favourite book in the class. It was one of the first books I have ever read that wasn’t hunky-dory but I still managed to enjoy it. It really helped me understand the atrocities of WWI when I studied the early 20th century in my history class.

  2. I’ve read a lot of WWI novels but for me this will stay the ONE. Maybe because it was one of the first I’ve read. I remember it really got to me. I love the movie too.

  3. Such a lovely review – I loved how you talked about your personal experience of reading the book. There are so many books written about the war but there are only a few I have read that have truly affected me and left a lasting impression, All Quiet on the Western Front is definitely one of them. I read it about five or six years ago now and will have to revisit it sometime this year. I also read Not So Quiet (we did a WW1 Literature module at A Level) and really enjoyed reading about the female experience of war time.

    • It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that has affected me so much, and Not So Quiet was a very good follow-up. But I have to admit that I was glad that I read Roald Dahl’s Matilda at the same time, to have something cheerful on the same.

  4. It’s a remarkable book and as you say, it’s heartbreaking. I think Paul’s experience as a young soldier is timeless, which makes the book all the more sad because people just don’t seem able to learn from the past.

    • I completely agree with you. It always astounds me that it took only 21 years for WW 2 to start after WW 1 ended. And it is even sadder when you think about how many wars there have been since then.

  5. I have been doing some WW1 reading too. I read this a couple of months ago and thought it was amazingly powerful. I have ordered a copy of Not So Quiet to read next month.

  6. I have this book in my to-read pile. I expect it to be sad, but it’s good to know that you seem to think highly of it. I will be careful to choose it when I am in the right mood, though. I’m curious to hear about Not So Quiet. It’s new to me, also.

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