I’m very parsimonious in handing out 5-star reviews, but Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece would’ve got twice that many if they’d been available – for yes, I do believe we need a 10-star rating system for books to properly rank them, but that’s a ramble for another day.
Last year, the Reading Addicts site took a poll of their members from which came this list of recommendations of 10 books set during WWI :
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
The First World War – John Keegan (non-fiction)
Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves (memoir)
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain (memoir)
The First Casualty – Ben Elton
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 – Christopher Clark (non-fiction)
Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – Various authors (poetry)
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
The Penguin poetry collection formed part of the set reading for my English Literature ‘O’ level all those years ago, and I read the Vera Brittain when about 20 – her age when WWI broke out; unsurprisingly, it had quite the impact on me and it was years before I chose to read about WWI again. I’ve since read a number of the other candidates and wouldn’t argue with the list, except in one aspect – Remarque’s book should, now and always, top it.
Of those listed, half are fiction, and only Remarque’s was written from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’, the aggressors, the war-mongering Hun (I’m British, and that’s how I was taught to perceive the ‘other side’ in both world wars) … and it’s all the more important a read for that very reason, for this book provides the balance which is sorely needed.
A couple of years ago I wandered into an exhibition of prints by Otto Dix, and this book reminded me of that experience. The obvious common ground is their sharing of the same subject matter – WWI. Others are that their work was produced later – between world wars, both were banned by the Third Reich, and both depict subjects which make you want to look away while having a power that draws you in.
All Quiet on the Western Front was written from the point-of-view of Paul – an educated and thoughtful young man – and what stayed with me were his observations.
How soldiers literally reverted to animal instinct as they get nearer the front, with Paul commenting that indulging in thought before acting could leave you dead. It made me wonder, does being a ‘successful’ soldier mean you must lose your humanity? Paul’s experience in the shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed, and who dies slowly, demonstrates that conflict between the human and the animal all too clearly. How the fighting of a war makes one scornful of those who continue to insist on the petty military parade-ground rubbish. How those who actually fight can view the older generation, who’d whipped them up on the glory of serving their country and sent them off to a horrific war without a single thought. How going home on leave could be such a viscerally painful experience. Paul had mused previously that the older soldiers, those who’d already started their adult lives, had something concrete to return to if they survived the war. But the younger men, the ones on the brink of adulthood had nothing. They’d been schoolboys, they’d not had a chance to develop yet – and becoming a soldier, fighting in a de-humanising war, had left them empty. Paul’s experiences on leave simply served to remind him of who’d he’d been before, demonstrating that he was unable to re-connect with his past, how that person was gone forever.
No wonder it was banned by the Third Reich. Described as one of the greatest pieces of anti-war literature, it’s strength is in its subtlety. There’s no speechifying, no ranting and raving. It’s neither a gore-fest nor gung-ho, we see soldiers simply doing what has to be done. But seeing the impact that has on them and whether it can be OK for those of us who do not fight to ask that of them, is just one of the many questions you end up asking yourself.
I was recently watching Indy Neidell’s excellent ‘Great War’ channel on Youtube, when he made mention of Remarque’s book. I hastened to his review and was interested to see that, despite coming to the book from the perspective of a historian, he had the same reaction which I, as a reader and writer, had. What was particularly interesting is that Neidell spoke of the research carried out by Remarque – research which allowed him to write such an accurate depiction, despite his own very brief involvement. Do take a moment to watch it …
In short, if you only read one book about WWI – this is the one. It’s an absolute masterpiece – a work of fiction, but positively dripping with historical accuracy.
© Debra Carey, 2019