Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Could You Be My Enemy?

All Quiet on the Western Front 

All Quiet on the Western Front

“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. 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?”   ― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was published in 1929, and it was the author's way of coming to terms with the war. Parts of the book are autobiographical. The work also has a history with censorship--the book was banned in Germany.

Rereading Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front , I was moved by his contrast of the bewilderment and innocence of the 20 year-old (and some younger, teenage!) boys and the horrific scenes of trench warfare.  You can get a sense of the bewilderment of the boys from the following:
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” 

The opening chapter, especially, where the one young boy who had the temerity to disagree with the military mindset of his schoolteacher was the first to be slain. But not just slain, rather left to die and only shot as he dragged himself back toward his comrades. This was bitter scene, but it would soon to get worse, much worse. The novel is "neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure. . ."

The overriding theme of the novel is the terrible brutality of war, which informs every scene. The narrative seeks to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery. In many ways, World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence, its battles that lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) that made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. Remarque’s novel dramatizes these aspects of World War I and portrays the mind-numbing terror and savagery of war with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it occasions. At the end of the novel, almost every major character is dead, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who were forced to fight it.

This is by far the best fictional account of the Great War, or of any war (although I would recommend that you consider viewing Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's exceptional film about the Great War mutinies). I wonder if it is any easier being taken out by a sudden explosion from a roadside bomb? I wonder.


Ruth said...

I totally agree -- the best war novel (that I have read). It was so effective, it made me want to save our protagonist right from the pages.

Brian Joseph said...

I have never read this. I really need to.

You raise a good point about how World War I changed humanity's perception of war. Having seen the film versions of this book I can see how this story embodies that change in perception.

I second your recommendation of Paths of Glory. It is such a disturbing and powerful film.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. The book makes me want to give it to anyone contemplating joining the armed services.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate (almost said enjoy) the film version as well. Remarque is simple, straightforward, and powerful in his exposition.

Stephen said...

I remember reading this in early high school (during a jingoist-nationalist period) and being scandalized to learn early on that I was reading about the Germans. They were the bad guys!

Another novel with a similar theme was "Rifles for Watie", the story of a young Union soldier who is captured while scouting behind Confederate lines, who learns -- without changing his ultimate loyalty to the Union cause -- that the Confederates aren't devils, that their own causes are more complicated and mixed than he'd figured before.

James said...

Thanks for your comment and the book recommendation.