'Neither an accusation nor a confession’ - But a timely reminder of a continent at war with itself, the horrors of conflict, and the young who did not survive the shelling.
With the looming centenary of the 1918 Armistice, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front deserves a fresh reading. The most famous of Remarque’s novels, All Quiet’s realistic depiction of the conditions of the First World War arguably retains the impact it had upon publication in English in 1930. In the epigraph to the novel, Remarque humbly asserts that the novel is ‘Neither an accusation nor a confession,’ but instead a record of the generation lost to the battlefields of the First World War- whether in body or in spirit. The novel’s unflinching depiction of combat and the experience of the ordinary foot-soldier of the trenches make it difficult to dispute Remarque’s assertion of his impartiality, or find any distinctly patriotic or political motivations behind the work. However, Remarque’s evident disgust towards violence and ambivalence towards the doomed German war effort was enough to offend the sensibilities of an ascendant Nazi party, who deemed it to be ‘unpatriotic’ and therefore something to be withheld from the general public. An unsurprising reaction, given the regime’s disparaging view of any truth deemed to be ‘inconvenient.’
The truth, however, is more abhorrent than fiction. Remarque’s language and imagery reach the limits of obscenity at times; ‘Dead men are hanging in the trees. In one of them a naked soldier is squatting in the branches; his helmet is still on his head.’ This grotesque phenomenon is casually explained away as the result of ‘mortar fire’, but more troubling is the passive reaction of Paul Bäumer, the narrator, to such horrors. Nothing is left to the imagination in this nightmarishly vivid depiction of war, and not even the base act of ‘shitting’ is omitted. Yet despite this, the novel does not strike one as deliberately shocking, but only as an aesthetic object which captures the most mundane details of the misery of the First World War. Perhaps the most arresting element of Remarque’s writing is its humanity, one which is grounded by a belief in the fundamental decency of the human spirit in the face of suffering. Bäumer’s interactions with his more naïve comrades are both touching and tragic in their range of discussion; to settle national conflicts, they arrive at the simple solution that the head of each nation should be left in a boxing ring, without involving the rest of the population. While unrealistic, there is a clear logic in Bäumer’s assessment that it would be ‘fairer than things are out here.’ Such easy judgements, however, also serve as a reminder of their youth and inexperience, and form chilling reminders that at eighteen, they are little more than boys.
The progress of the novel sees the realisation that Bäumer’s cause is no better or more just than that held by the men he is fighting against, and the moment of epiphany (or at least near-epiphany) comes in Bäumer’s experience in a shell-hole with a French soldier whom he has killed. Any thought of nationalism, righteousness or animosity is forgotten. Remarque simply presents a dead man and his killer, forced to occupy the same space, and leaves Bäumer to the terrible realisation of what he has done. Yet this microcosm of violence can only remain as such, and the tragedy of reality is finally reasserted in Bäumer’s later assessment of his thoughts- ‘What sort of rubbish did I dream up in that shell-hole?’ A hundred years on from the end of that war, the misery inflicted in the name of nationalist zealotry should not be forgotten, and All Quiet on the Western Front offers one such painfully honest reminder.