All Quiet on the Western Front is often praised for the way it faithfully captures not only the physical experience of war, but the psychological bent of the young soldiers who were caught up in its futile and alienating brutality. Modris Eksteins, professor of history at the University of Toronto, Canada, argues in the following viewpoint that it is more accurate to say that Remarque captured the postwar mind. After all, when Remarque wrote the novel, the war had been over for ten years. Remarque and other writers of his generation were finally able to come to terms with the trauma the war had caused them, and Remarque, like a number of other writers, wrote the novel during this post-trauma time, not during the war. Consequently, it reflects postwar values, including the belief that World War I contributed immensely to the rootlessness of many of the people who survived it. Modris Eksteins has written extensively about Germany’s Weimar Republic and on war and its impact on civilization.
by Modris Eksteins
The simplicity and power of the theme—war as a demeaning and wholly destructive, indeed nihilistic, force—are made starkly effective by a style that is basic, even brutal. Brief scenes and short crisp sentences, in the first person and in the present tense, create an inescapable and gripping immediacy. There is no delicacy. The language is frequently rough, the images often gruesome. The novel has a consistency of style and purpose that Remarque’s earlier work had lacked and that little of his subsequent work would achieve.
Despite Remarque’s introductory comment and his reiteration of the point in later statements, very few contemporary reviewers noted, and later critics have generally ignored, that All Quiet was not a book about the events of the war—it was not a memoir, much less a diary—but an angry declaration about the effects of the war on the young generation that lived through it. Scenes, incidents, and images were chosen to illustrate how the war had destroyed the ties, psychological, moral, and real, between the generation at the front and society at home. “If we go baek,” says Paul, “we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more.” The war, Remarque was asserting in 1928, had shattered the possibility of pursuing what society would consider a normal existence.
The Postwar Mind
Henee, All Quiet is more a comment on the postwar mind, on the postwar view of the war, than an attempt to reconstruct the reality of the trench experience. In fact that reality is distorted, as many critics insisted—though with little effect on the initial acclaim for the novel. Remarque’s critics said that at the very least he misrepresented the physical reality of the war: a man with his legs or his head blown off could not continue to run, they protested vehemently, referring to two of the images Remarque had used. Rut far more serious than such shoddiness, they claimed, was his lack of understanding of the moral aspects of soldiers’ behavior. Soldiers were not robots, devoid of a sense of purpose. They were sustained by a broad spectrum of firmly established values.
Although his publisher did not like such admissions, because they undermined the credibility of the novel, Remarque was prepared to say that his book was primarily about the postwar generation. In an exchange in 1929 with General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander at Gallipoli in 1915 and now head of the British Legion, Remarque expressed his “amazement” and “admiration” that Hamilton for one had understood his intentions in writing All Quiet:
I merely wanted to awaken understanding for a generation that more than all others has found it difficult to make its way back from four years of death, struggle, and terror, to the peaceful fields of work and progress.
It was in part the misinterpretation of his purpose that led Remarque to write a sequel to All Quiet. Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), a novel published in 1931, explicitly argued the ease of the “lost generation.”
All Quiet can be seen not as an explanation but as a symptom of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world, particularly of the generation that reached maturity during the war. The novel was an emotional condemnation, an assertion of instinct, a cri d’angoisse [a cry of anguish] from a malcontent, a man who could not find his niche in society. That the war contributed enormously to the shiftlessness of much of the postwar generation is undeniable; that the war was the root cause of this social derangement is at least debatable; but Remarque never took part in the debate directly. For Remarque the war had become a vehicle of escape. Remarque and his book were, to borrow from Karl Kraus, symptoms of the disease they claimed to diagnose.
Notwithstanding Remarque’s opening declaration of impartiality that his book was “neither an accusation nor a confession”—it was in fact both. And it was more. It was a confession of personal despair, but it was also an indignant denunciation of an insensate social and political order, inevitably of that order which had produced the horror and destruction of the war but particularly of the one that could not settle the war and deal with the aspirations of veterans. Through characters identifiable with the state—the schoolmaster with his unalterable fantasies about patriotism and valor, the former postman who functions like an unfeeling robot in his new role as drill sergeant, the hospital orderlies and doctors who deal not with human suffering, only bodies—Remarque accused. He accused a mechanistic civilization of destroying humane values, of negating charity, love, humor, beauty, and individuality. Yet Remarque offered no alternatives. The characters of his generazione bruciata—the Italian notion of a “burned generation” is apt—do not act; they are merely victims. Of all the war books of the late twenties—the novels of Arnold Zweig, Renn, R.H. Mottram, H.M. Tomlinson, Richard Aldington, Hemingway, and the memoirs of Graves, Blunden, Sassoon, to name but a few of the more important works—Remarque’s made its point, that his was a truly lost generation, most directly and emotionally, even stridently, and this directness and passion lay at the heart of its popular appeal.
SOURCE: Rites of Spring, by Modris Eksteins. Copyright © 1989 by Modris Eksteins.
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Face to Face with Death
In an interview with Axel Eggebracht for Die Literuische Welt, a German periodical, Erich Maria Remarque commented on the subject matter of his wildly successful novel. The following excerpt was translated for the Boston Transcript and reprinted in an article in the October 12, 1929, Literary Digest
Our generation has grown up in a different way from all others before and afterward. Their one great and most important experience was the war. No matter whether they approved or rejected it; whether they understood it from a nationalistic, pacifistic, adventurous, religious, or stoic point of view. They saw blood, horror, annihilation, struggle, and death. That was the general human experience of all. And I have confined myself intentionally to this one experience. The war is presupposed as a fact sufficiently well known. The few reflections which are to be found in the book occupy themselves with this purely human experience of the war. I avoided taking sides from every political, social, religious or other point of view I consider myself just as little competent to do this as to write a history of the war. I have spoken only of the terror, of the horror, of the desperate, often brutal impulses of self-preservation, of the tenacious hold on life, face to face with death and annihilation.