World War I was called “The war to end all wars”. Of course, today we know differently. What makes this German anti-war novel so powerful is that it may well be one of the only books to look at the ordinary German soldier fighting in the trenches. Fighting and dying for a cause few understood. However, this book is not so much about battles won or lost, but about those who survived and the psychological impact on their post-war lives. “It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war” is how Remarque saw the purpose of his novel.
While the author may feel his book is not political nor an accusation of the older generation, the fact remains that the major characters in the book are like puppets, in the sense that they get orders to be carried out, often by far distant officials and officers who play with maps while their soldiers face death and injuries in the trenches. We get the sense that it is the older generation who pushed young men into service. Kantorek, Paul Baumer’s professor, urged his young students to be patriotic and enlist. The very idea of fighting for patriotism is denounced by Remarque, because the one student who hesitated before enlisting was the first to die. Patriotism, after reading the novel, is such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is almost a sin to be unpatriotic. On the other, patriotism can be a deadly feeling: going to war to defend one’s nation against what the government considers an enemy. Can this novel be considered political? Obviously, the Nazis thought so, since the first banned and then burned copies of this book in the 1930s. Wars are created by governments made up of elderly politicians. They are fought by the sons and daughters of the government’s generation. Often, these are ordinary men who are in the trenches. There is a current simile in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, where he corners Congressmen and Senators to ask whether their family members are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan; as well as the current investigation about President Bush’s ability to remain at home while so many other ordinary men and women went to Viet Nam.
There was a specific and obvious division between the older soldiers and those who enlisted right out of school. One soldier, Mueller, kept questioning his friends about their postwar plans. Older men who had prewar jobs and families regarded the war as an interruption in their lives that eventually would end. They had concrete identities and functions within society. Younger men, such as Paul and his classmates, had no such concrete identities. They entered the war when they were on the threshold of their adult lives. Maybe that is why, as some analyses of the book (www.sparknotes.com/lit/allquiet/) call this group “the lost generation”. The worst loss of all is the loss of lives. There is no doubt that this book, especially the final chapter which is a sort of epilogue, points out both the ruthlessness and the loss of an entire generation of young men: What is ironic, at the end of the novel, is that Paul and his friends survive nearly three years of trench warfare, only to die within months of the peace agreement. Paul dies in October 1918, barely a month before the armistice that ended World War I in November. Paul is also the last of the boys in his class. His death marks the end of a generation of young men who represent the lost generation as a whole. Even though some soldiers may have survived the war, Remarque portrays the conflict as having symbolically eradicated an entire generation.
Of course this is an indictment of both government and Old Guard. One the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the Germans knew they would lose. They could have stopped a year earlier and saved a generation. But, the idea of “patriotism” and “pride” not only destroyed much of the younger generation, but brought financial ruin- and eventually Hitler and the Nazis to power. What the Old Guard accomplished, in fact, was to bring about World War II and the death of millions. After every chapter, a reader has to think “What if?” and realize it was the German government’s stubbornness that became a worldwide tragedy a generation later and became the most deadly of wars..
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the Western Front New York: Little, Brown (1929)
Excerpts from “All Quiet on the Western Front” www.sparknotes.com/lit/allquiet/