The 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.