Another war book. Usually I wouldn’t select books about war because I don’t understand the scenery and my first instinct would be that I wouldn’t like them, but All Quiet on the Western Front became my second war book this year (The Things They Carried being the first). What made this book appealing was that it wasn’t an account of World War I; it was simply the narrative of a man and his fellow soldiers during a war. The limited number of battle titles, dates, and military terminology helped it be more of a story than a history lesson. While The Things They Carried was about the power of a story, this novel portrays the realness of war, the long nights of nothing, and the loss of attachment to civilian life.
The story follows Paul Baumer who is a German soldier recruited at a young age along with seven others in his class. He comes to the war front and meets my favorite character, Katzcinsky, the conniving and crafty soldier who becomes Paul’s mentor. Paul and the soldiers in his unit spend time alternating between the front and the base camp. Life changes so much that when Paul goes home for a leave, he finds that he doesn’t belong there anymore.
“How can a man take that stuff [education and job] seriously when he’s been out here?”
Always overshadowing everything the soldiers do is a knowing of death. They don’t live in fear of it, but they do know it’s possible at any moment. They don’t allow themselves to worry about normal everyday feelings such as love because those seem superfluous to living and dying.
We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they might be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here.
All other expressions lie in a winter sleep, life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death; It has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct – it has reinforced us with dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror, which would overwhelm us if we had clear, conscious thought.
One by one, Paul watches his friends die either on the front or in a hospital until finally even Kat dies at the end of the book. This is when Paul stops the fight to live because he knows that returning to civilian life in the impending peacetime will not be possible. The book doesn’t say he purposefully gives up living, but he does hint at the fact that he knows his future is too dull to live. He dies on an ordinary day, and with a punching quietness, Remarque states that on the day of Paul’s death it was reported that “all is quiet on the western front” signifying that Paul’s death is insignificant to the rest of the world.
This book is a powerful commentary on the reality of war without making a strong stance for or against war itself. I’d recommend this book to high school age and up with the understanding that there is some language, gruesome scenes, and heavy content.