The social effects of war in All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is not just one of the many books about the First World War. While the others were mostly about memoirs, Remarque rather dealt with the social effects of the war. Even though, he stated in the motto of the book that he is not intending to accuse anybody or confess, he is. The book’s emphasis is not on the war but on its impacts on the people and All Quiet on the Western Front is indeed an accusation for destroying people not only physically but especially mentally. The main theme of the book is the meaninglessness of the war, and the changes that take place in the souls of the soldiers. Eksteins (345) says that the boom of war-related art started at the end of the 1920s. Before that, war was mostly a taboo. People wanted to forget and look into the future. War was still in people’s minds, remembering was still too painful. There was a “nervous exhaustion from which nations suffered after the war.” (346) The interest started to evoke around 1928. Books, plays, films about the Great War became a fashionable subject. Ten years passed since the end of the war, when books got published about it, war dramas were staged in a high number, war movies flooded the cinemas: suddenly everything in connection with the war became saleable and popular. This was the trend mainly in Germany and GreatBritain, but also in France and in the United States (345-347). Remarque’s war experience is quite mysterious. As he was born in 1989, he was 16, when the war broke out in 1914. He was conscripted two years later, in 1916. He is said to be wounded five or six times, but only one of these was serious. After wounding in his leg and under his arm, he got hospitalized in Duisburg till the end of the war. His days as a soldier are little-known, but his war experience was definitely not as extensive as that of the main character, Paul. After the war, he tried to write poems, novels and plays and he finally published only two novels, but none of them became really popular (Eksteins 348). His life

was not successful after the war, and in an interview he admitted “[a]ll of us were and still are, restless, aimless, sometimes excited, sometimes indifferent, and essentially unhappy.” (349) That is probably where the inspiration to the book came from. The novel starts with the following motto: „This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” It is already revealed here that Remarque does not want to deal with actual facts, but rather with the impacts of the war. Although, he says that the book is neither an accusation nor a confession, after reading it, it becomes obvious that it is indeed both. Eksteins states that Remarque confesses his personal despair, and accuses the wrong social and political order that produced the war and the horror that came with it. (351) His point is that there were soldiers who returned home, however, they were mentally destroyed by their experiences. They could never be the same people they were before. As Ekstein puts it into words: „the war has destroyed the ties, psychological, moral, and real, between the front generation and society at home.” (351) Throughout the novel there are many scenes that are intended to show this irreversible change in soldiers, which makes it impossible for them to return to their homes and live their lives as they lived before the war. This is showed through the example of the main character, Paul Bäuman, who might be based on Remarque himself, whose middle name was originally Paul (Eksteins 347). The most obvious change that the comrades go through is growing up. Paul and his classmates are 18 years old, and when we get to know them they are on the front for about 2 years. But they are not young anymore. “ We are none of us more than twenty years old. But

young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk.” (Remarque 19) This topic comes up later as well, when thinking about what has happened since they are at the front: „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.” (66) Paul describes the change on the front a couple of times as becoming animals: “we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.” (Remarque 44) Soldiers do not think any more, because if they did, they would go insane. They become mindless killing-machines. “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.” (83) At least, they try not to think about killing, because if they do, it reminds them of their mortality. It happens, when Paul goes out spying after his days off, and stabs a French soldier (152) or when he catches the eye of a soldier from the enemy (82). The question of survival became their law: either the enemy or them and they cannot let themselves pity the enemy: “ if we don't destroy them, they will destroy us.” (Remarque 84) The comrades lost their feelings and emotions and that is how they are still able to go on and kill. Otherwise, it would be impossible, and Paul perfectly describes this state of mind: „We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill.” (84) In contrast with the animal-metaphor, while they totally alienate from their natural self, nature and animals live their normal life. Seasons are changing, animals are building their nests and then hatch the eggs. There are some brimstone-butterflies, although there are no flowers (Remarque 93). Seeing the normal life of nature, the horror of war and the changes it brought seem even more unnatural and abnormal.

Another contrast is the one between quiet and noise. The normal life is quiet. When Paul remembers some nice memories, he says that they are always quiet, even if they were louder in reality. But “at the front there is no quietness.” (Remarque 91) When Paul is spending his days off, he is frightened by the noisy of the tram. Sudden noises will always mean the war for him, even if there is peace. Home becomes alien and strange. Paul does not feel what he used to feel. He tries really hard, but he cannot get that feeling again. Nothing has changed, but him. Even he knows that: “ I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.” (Remarque 120). The front is their new home. It has its own rules and its own value system, where they do not have any comfort, but their comrades. “They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.” Berkley also emphasizes that the friendship with Kat, who became the most important person in the life of Paul (71). When Paul returns home, first he does not even know how to behave. No one can understands him. Even if they know what is going on at the front, they are unable to grasp it. When Paul’s mother is asking her son, if it was really bad out there, he thinks: “Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not understand, you could never realise it. And you never shall realise 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." (Remarque 115) Even those, who are the closest to Paul cannot understand the horror of the war. Only those can who are out there fighting and lived through it (Delahunty and Yoo 923). This not-understanding is even worse in the case of strangers. When Paul meets his German teacher, and the head-master of his school, they seem to understand even less. Paul tries to explain them how bad the situation is, but his efforts are in vain. These two people

only laugh, and think that they can win with a little more effort. They say they understand, but they would not say things like that, if they really could.(Remarque 118). Returning their previous life is impossible for the soldiers, because they gained characteristics that are essential to survival and war. Things without which, they would go insane or die, but attributes that are not only useless in normal life, but make life much harder. Remarque also gives these words into Paul’s mouth: “ We became hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough - and that was good; for these attributes were just what we lacked. Had we gone into the trenches without this period of training most of us would certainly have gone mad.” (Remarque 24) The soldiers does not realize but “the war was the meaning of their lives” (Delahunty and Yoo 925), which loses its meaning the minute they return home. The other thing that Remarque wants to prove is that war is meaningless. There is a scene in the book, when one of Paul’s comrades called Kropp is wondering about this. He implies that both countries think that are right and that they are the only one that is right. He is also thinking about why the war started. Someone says it is patriotism, because one country offended the other, but Kropp reaches the conclusion that it still does not make sense because he personally not offended (Remarque 142-145). These people are those that give the commands that influences the lives of all the soldiers: “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends.” (146) At an earlier point, the comrades are daydreaming about a war where only the actual parties would take part: “ Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins.” (32) Paul gradually starts to understand the impacts of the war on himself, and sometimes, he is thinking about them. He already knows what he would experience going back to society, and he puts it into words a couple of times. In the last chapter he concludes: “ Now if we go

back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more.” (Remarque 199) It is the way Remarque wants to emphasize it. He does not only show it in action, but also gives the actual words into Paul’s mouth. Paul symbolizes the average soldier. He got conscripted from high school at the age of 18. He is “believable, sensitive, and intelligent but not remarkably different from his companions.” (Berkley 71) He is gradually changing, as he sees his friend die, then himself kills an another soldier by stabbing him. This is a change that might slow down when he goes home, but it cannot be turned back. The structure of the book also highlights the meaninglessness of the war. Berkley says that there is no real plot, the book is written in journalistic style. There are some recurrent images (such as eating or bombings), which makes the novel rather a circular narrative then one that consists of causes and effects. It reflects the nature of the war that it is unpredictable, and pointless. (71) The first person singular narration and the present tense evoke immediacy that is also a feature of war. Also the language and the gruesome images reflect the horror of the war (Eksteins 350). Even though, the main character and his friends are German, it is not very much emphasized. They could be French, as well as English or Americans. It does not matter, because results of the war are the same for all country. A generation that grew up in the war, survived it, but is mentally destroyed, “it is the common fate of our generation.” (Remarque 65) To summarize, Erich Maria Remarque’s purpose with this book was showing how pointless the war is, and how it destroys even those who survive it. All Quiet on the Western Front is not only a description of the war, but also an accusation of the order that makes people kill each other. The author’s point is very clear, he emphasizes it in the scenes of the book, characters say it out loud, and even the novel’s structure and style highlights it.

Works Cited Berkley, June. "Recommended: Erich Maria Remarque ." National Council of Teachers of English 75.5 (1986): 71-72. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. Delahunty, Robert J., and John C. Yoo. "Peace through Law? The Failure of a Noble Experiment." The Michigan Law Review Association 106.6 (2008): 923-39. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. Eksteins, Modris. "All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War." Journal of Contemporary History 15.2 (1980): 345-66. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2013. Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. London: Putnam & Company Ltd., 1970. Print

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful