It’s been a hundred years, and the story is compelling, as it was at the time Erich Maria Remarque wrote it, ten years after the end of what was supposed to be The War to End All Wars. It’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and it tells the story of a German soldier in World War One.
I avoided this book for decades, picking it up only recently. I was aware of the movie as a primitive early sound production and was unaware the book existed. What a present surprise was in store when I began to read, and grim, as well. Few works depict the reality and brutality of modern conflict to the degree this does.
My initial reaction to the book was based on seeing the opening scenes of the film. It’s apparent the film is not the book. Remarque served in the war, on the Western Front. That is, in the Belgium-France fighting. His personal story only loosely parallels the book’s protagonist, Paul Bäumer, a private conscripted into the army at the age of 18. His tale appears to begin in 1916, two years following the start of the war, at which time he is 20.
A critical parallel with the film is the character of the school master, Kantorek, who harangues his young students about their obligation to enlist and fight for their country.
Kantorek had been our schoolmaster, a stern little man in a grey tail-coat, with a face like a shrew mouse. He was about the same size as Corporal Himmelstoss, the “terror of Klosterberg.” It is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men. They are so much more energetic and uncompromising than the big fellows. I have always taken good care to keep out of sections with small company commanders. They are mostly confounded little martinets.
During drill-time Kantorek gave us long lectures until the whole of our class went, under his shepherding, to the District Commandant and volunteered. I can see him now, as he used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice: “Won’t you join up, Comrades?”
These teachers always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by the hour. But we didn’t think of that then.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel (pp. 10-11). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
A consequence is that some of Bäumer’s classmates become his comrades in arms, and he endures having to watch them die.
There was, indeed, one of us who hesitated and did not want to fall into line. That was Joseph Behm, a plump, homely fellow. But he did allow himself to be persuaded, otherwise he would have been ostracized. And perhaps more of us thought as he did, but no one could very well stand out, because at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word “coward”; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for. The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy.
Katczinsky said that was a result of their upbringing. It made them stupid. And what Kat said, he had thought about.
Strange to say, Behm was one of the first to fall. He got hit in the eye during an attack, and we left him lying for dead. We couldn’t bring him with us, because we had to come back helter-skelter. In the afternoon suddenly we heard him call, and saw him crawling about in No Man’s Land. He had only been knocked unconscious. Because he could not see, and was mad with pain, he failed to keep under cover, and so was shot down before anyone could go and fetch him in.
Naturally we couldn’t blame Kantorek for this. Where would the world be if one brought every man to book? There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best— in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel (pp. 11-12). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Readers will recall from history that in the first few weeks the Germans advanced into Belgium and France, and the Western Front quickly stagnated along a line running from the Swiss Border, north of Paris, and to the Channel coast. This is where the war in the west was fought until the fall of 1918. All action takes place here, at military detachment centers in Germany, and Paul Bäumer’s home town. As the tale progresses the scene at the front wilts with German fortunes. Germany was then, and was in the following war, very much locked away from the rest of the world by unfriendly powers. England, France, and Italy in the beginning, and later the United States, employed this isolation to strangle Germany’s ability to wage war. The effect is seen in the progressive decay of the German front and the desperate plight of civilians in Germany.
“It is pretty bad for food here?” I enquire.
“Yes, there’s not much. Do you get enough out there?”
I smile and point to the things I have brought. “Not always quite as much as that, of course, but we fare reasonably well.”
Erna takes away the food. Suddenly my mother seizes hold of my hand and asks falteringly: “Was it very bad out there, Paul?”
Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not understand, you could never realize it. And you shall never realize it. Was it bad, you ask.—You, Mother,—I shake my head and say: “No, Mother, not so very. There are always a lot of us together so it isn’t so bad.”
“Yes, but Heinrich Bredemeyer was here just lately and said it was terrible out there now, with the gas and all the rest of it.”
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel (pp. 160-161). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
As an aside, an Allied observer noted a difference between the opposing powers. Whereas the French and English trenches had an air of impermanence, a German trench, overrun, gave the appearance the Germans intended to stay awhile. The English and the French worked constantly to push toward Germany. The Germans were satisfied to let the situation stagnate. It was ultimately Germany’s ruin.
Remarque graphically brings alive the savagery of the fighting, highlighted by intense and sustained shelling, sniper fire, and hand-to-hand fighting.
But the shelling is stronger than everything. It wipes out the sensibilities, I merely crawl still farther under the coffin, it shall protect me, though Death himself lies in it.
Before me gapes the shell-hole. I grasp it with my eyes as with fists. With one leap I must be in it. There, I get a smack in the face, a hand clamps onto my shoulder—has the dead man waked up?—The hand shakes me, I turn my head, in the second of light I stare into the face of Katczin, he has his mouth wide open and is yelling. I hear nothing, he rattles me, comes nearer, in a momentary lull his voice reaches me: “Gas—Gaas—Gaaas—Pass it on.”
I grab for my gas-mask. Some distance from me there lies someone. I think of nothing but this: That fellow there must know: Gaaas—Gaaas——
I call, I lean toward him, I swipe at him with the satchel, he doesn’t see—once again, again—he merely ducks—it’s a recruit—I look at Kat desperately, he has his mask on—I pull out mine, too, my helmet falls to one side, it slips over my face, I reach the man, his satchel is on the side nearest me, I seize the mask, pull it over his head, he understands, I let go and with a jump drop into the shell-hole.
The dull thud of the gas-shells mingles with the crashes of the light explosives. A bell sounds between the explosions, gongs, and metal clappers warning everyone—Gas—Gas—Gaas.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel (pp. 67-68). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Remarque was a master story teller, and his language flows, leading the mind into the plight of the German soldiers. He writes not just graphically but evocatively.
But I do not want to think of that, I sweep it away. The room shall speak, it must catch me up and hold me, I want to feel that I belong here, I want to hearken and know when I go back to the front that the war will sink down, he drowned utterly in the great home-coming tide, know that it will then be past forever, and not gnaw us continually, that it will have none but an outward power over us.
The backs of the books stand in rows. I know them all still, I remember arranging them in order. I implore them with my eyes: Speak to me—take me up—take me, Life of my Youth—you who are care-free, beautiful—receive me again—
I wait, I wait.
Images float through my mind, but they do not grip me, they are mere shadows and memories.
My disquietude grows.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel (p. 172). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It is that kind of story. One by one his fellows are killed or taken away by ruinous wounds. He is the last to go, in the closing days of the war. And therein is the catch line that gives the title:
He fell in October 1981, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front; that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel (p. 295). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The book came out near the height of German resentment over the confines of the Treaty of Versailles, during the rise of the Nazi Party. The story is decidedly unpatriotic, and when the Nazis gained power Remarque was an immediate target. His books were burned. He fled to Switzerland. Unable to vent on Remarque, the Nazis turned to available targets:
In 1943, the government arrested his youngest sister, Elfriede Scholz, who had stayed behind in Germany with her husband and two children. After a trial in the “Volksgerichtshof” (Hitler’s extra-constitutional “People’s Court”), she was found guilty of “undermining morale” for stating that she considered the war lost. Court President Roland Freisler declared, “Ihr Bruder ist uns leider entwischt—Sie aber werden uns nicht entwischen” (“Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach—you, however, will not escape us”). Scholz was beheaded on 16 December 1943, and the cost of her prosecution, imprisonment and execution—495.80 Reichsmark—was billed to her sister Erna. In exile Remarque was unaware of his relatives’ fate until after the war, and would dedicate his 1952 novel Spark of Life (Der Funke Leben) to his late sister, but the dedication was omitted in the German version of the book, reportedly because he was still seen as a traitor by some Germans.
It is obvious Remarque was an excellent writer, but a translation such as this hangs desperately on the quality of the translator, in this case A.W. Wheen, a contemporary of Remarque’s. There is much we owe to Wheen for choosing the proper English words to impart the author’s intent and feeling.
Even so, I am guessing do not translate. Germany was a metric country, and Wheen translates all metric measures into English (American). For example, in order to get removed from a hospital train and into a Catholic hospital, Bäumer deliberately drives his thermometer reading to 101.6, fatal in Celsius, but merely cautious in Fahrenheit. [Editor’s note: Fahrenheit was German.] Also, food quantities are given in pounds instead of kilograms. One can only wonder what else got translated.
As mentioned, the movie is primitive, but highly rated, getting an Academy Award for Best Production in the 1929-1930 season. A review will come either next month or else on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.