Dubbed “the greatest war novel of all time” by critics, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is historical fiction set from the German perspective during World War I. Remarque himself was a veteran of WWI and thus had an interesting and informed point of view while writing this novel. Not only were the battle scenes appropriately anxiety-ridden and gruesome, the other events (such as coming home on leave and an extended hospital stay) were appropriately detailed. First published as a novel in 1929, within 18 months it had sold 2.5 million copies in 25 languages worldwide.
The narrator is 19 year old Paul Bäumer, who joined the army after the vehement insistance of his high school teacher. The story tells not of the harrowing adventures of himself and his companions, but more of the extreme physical discomfort of the soliders throughout the war. It was intriguing to notice that the fear of imminent death often took a backseat to the creature comforts so sorely missed by the men (food, sleep, sex, hygiene, etc…) and that the hardship of missing one’s civilian life and family had faded in the young soliders’ minds.
Since I normally don’t read this genre of fiction, it was a new experience for me to feel the nervous tension of the soliders awaiting an impending bombardment. To feel the gnawing hunger of the young men sent to defend a football field-sized piece of land for days on end with barely any provisions. Not to mention the numbness to comrade’s pain, death, and suffering in order to simply carry on. Coming to terms with the fact that one’s job is to take as many lives as possible would be a very hard thing indeed, especially for a 19 year old. After his first kill in close combat, Paul laments:
“Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony– Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up– take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
Pretty powerful. This is definitely the right book for war/history fanatics, as well as those looking to gain perspective into what life for a solider was like in such a horrific environment. Although the story didn’t end in the way that I had hoped, it definitely impacted me intensely. It was very easy for me to draw parallels to today’s war– because although the technologies and the participants may be different– the underlying emotions and inhumanities experienced during such traumatic events are the same.
4 out of 5 stars.