Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

This is one of those books that I somehow managed to escape high school without reading. I’ve known about this book for awhile, but only in the sense that it was a war novel; I assumed that because it was a war novel commonly assigned to high school students, it lacked any real depth, or grusome realities, or any number of the things that make an R-rated movie more realistic and enjoyable than a PG-13 counterpart. However, having started a recent dive into WWI, I couldn’t not read this. In looking for new WWI material, this book continually popped up as a must-read. In fact, the version of the book I ended up getting proclaims on the front that it is “The Greatest War Novel of All Time”. More evidence that this was a must-read.

While it may not be the greatest war novel of all time, I had certainly underestimated its worth. I came away from this novel with a real sense of what it meant to be on the front lines of WWI (well, I guess guess as much of a sense as one can get from just reading about it and not actually living it). It covered much ground. There are the highs: preparing and devouring a goose in a war zone devoid of proper food, the fortnight Paul (the narrator) and his comrades spend overlooking a deserted town, sleeping on mattresses and foraging for simple pleasures, and a scandalous rendezvous with French girls across the river from where the soldiers are billeted. Of course, the highs are temporary departures from the baseline of absolute terribleness that comes with being a WWI front-line soldier. There are the artillery barrages during which the soldiers are forced to wait out hunkered down in an underground trench for potentially days at a time, waiting for their time to come. There are the rats that infest all parts of the trench looking for scraps of food; the soldiers plant traps to lure the giant rats in order to strike and kill them with spades. There are the cries of wounded lying in no man’s land, driving soldiers in the trench mad. And a million other things that can’t be enumerated.

What reverberated with me the most was the effect the war had on the growth and psyche of the young soldiers. Paul and his friends all joined straight from school and can’t be older than 20. Paul, the narrator, speaks with his friends about the uncomfortable notion of returning to the regular world after the conclusion of the war. They discuss how normal life has lost its luster after the what they’ve experienced. On leave for the first time, Paul realizes that there’s no way he can easily assimilate back to real life. Those at home are not able to comprehend what the young men at the front have experienced.

With that in mind, what I find hard to understand is why these young men - kids, really - continue to fight. The enlisted during an out burst of patriotism and at the urging of their schoolmaster (who ironically falls under the command of one of his former students as a territorial unit). But as the war drags on and the horrible conditions of trench life morphs from unfortunate circumstance to the baseline of daily life, it surprises me that the men don’t throw down their weapons or go mad. Is it simply the animalistic will to survive? That in a time of war, one can not think past immediately survival. Perhaps not even can not think but should not think, for their own sanity? I guess Paul does refer to maintaining ones sanity by not bringing into focus the realities of the entire war experience. But I’m still surprised and impressed by the resolution of these young men. The men who encouraged them such as Kantorek or Himmelstoss, who led them with firm conviction, take on a different being when they are placed into the proximity of war. They lose the respect of the young men, who no longer see them in the position of power and authority they had before their personal clashes with the war. The young men, by contrast, have become hardened. They bear the death of their friends, the night raids in no man’s land, the constant barrages, and the lull of imprisonment in the trench. They do so and soldier on, fighting for the next day. But they seem to also understand that for them, war has dashed any meaning from their life. They are 18 - how can one resume traditional pursuits after escaping death and killing men? Paul specifically seems to understand that he has been drastically altered to where his shape will no longer fit squarely back into the gap he left at home. Paul has grown an outer shell that’s necessary for him to survive the war intact; this same shell will prevent the him from fully embracing civilian life. He won’t be able to resume the life he had only started to live. And yet, he continues to fight, knowing that his generation’s future is bleak.

There’s been so much already written about this book that I can’t add much more than what’s already been said. However, I have put some of my favorite passages below:

He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.

It is this Chance that makes us indifferent…No soldier outlives a thousand chances. But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down.

He wants me to tell him about the front…I realized he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us.

What I keep thinking of was the exchange:

Tjaden reappears. He is still quite excited and again joins the conversation, wondering just how a war gets started. “Mostly by one country badly offending another,” answers Albert with a slight air of superiority. Tjaden pretends to be obtuse. “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.”

and what follows:

“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are laborers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”