There is no such thing as a “good war”, but I think it’s fair to say that some wars are worse than others. After reading All Quiet on the Western Front, I think that holds true for World War One.
Released in 1929, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel details the horrors experienced by those stationed on the front lines in The Great War as it focuses on Paul Bäumer and several of his classmates after they enlist to fight for Germany. Followed by a film of the same name in 1930, both book and movie would be banned and burned in the coming years by the Nazi regime. In fact, during its original showing in Germany, the theatre was invaded by a group of Nazi brownshirts who threw smoke bombs screaming “Judenfilm!” in an attempt to disperse the crowd. With an inevitable war on the horizon, it made sense to prevent a hyper-critical work of art from seeping into the minds and hearts of German citizens.
While it does focus on soldiers in the German army, the experience isn’t exclusive to them alone. This could be the experience of any citizen who signed up to fight for his country as the experiences were universal. Body parts strewn about as arms and legs landed in trenches, in trees and bushes. Fallen soldiers without their heads and lower bodies littered no man’s land – the area between warring sides at the front – were told of in extreme detail by the author. This is true horror the likes of which no man should ever witness.
Even in their brief respite from the front, soldiers rested in deplorable conditions where they had to battle rats for the minuscule scraps of food they were given. Due to this, their bodies would break down developing illnesses, with the most common being dysentery. Any rest they would manage to get, they would experience an unbearable itchiness due to being coated in lice. Unless you died, there seemed to be no ending to your suffering and even then, death was not usually a quick experience.
Physical maladies aside, there are also the long-lasting effects war has on the mind. You’re literally cheating death with every day you survive another shift at the front. Remarque writes of constant explosions both near and far from the trenches Paul occupies as he struggles to keep it all together. Often he has to help calm down those that are on the brink of complete mental collapse. It is often said that many who returned from the war (and continue to return from wars) without physical injury, never truly come back in a certain sense. As Remarque writes, “[This book] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”
The fact that it feels so authentic is because it is, so to speak. Erich Maria Remarque served in The Great War and had both seen and experienced the atrocities he wrote about in this book. It’s no wonder the Nazi regime wanted to keep this story out of the hands of potential recruits. However, considering how brainwashed Hitler had made his country, there’s no way to know for sure if any book could have stopped those seeking to fight for their national pride.
This was one of the best books I’ve ever read but I’m not sure if it’ll be one that I revisit often in the future, if at all. I think it is an essential read for those of us that were lucky enough to never have had to serve as well as for those who are thinking of enlisting. While you have to imagine conditions are better today, you’re still going to put your life on the line. In the end, Remarque just wants to ask the question – “is it worth it?”