Reprise Books

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’: No other book has better captured the helpless and hopeless nature of war

Chilling: A still from the 1979 television film.

Chilling: A still from the 1979 television film.  

America has been at war with Afghanistan for 17 years now with no end in sight. The statistics are devastating — over 2,000 killed, more than 20,000 injured, and this is just on the American side. Hundreds have been killed in the Afghanistan war and continue to die. It’s the same story in Syria, Iraq, Yemen. No other book has better captured the helpless and hopeless nature of war than perhaps All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) written by German-born Erich Maria Remarque. The story goes that when he turned 18 in 1916, he enlisted in the army and was sent to the western front in northern France. The brutal depiction of war in All Quiet... is based on Remarque’s firsthand experiences.

Falling into line

Remarque’s lines at the beginning set the tone: “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.” It was serialised in the Berlin newspaper Vossische Zeitung and found instant success when it was published in book form. All Quiet... was translated into more than 20 languages and has sold over 50 million copies. It was one of the first books to be declared “decadent” by the Nazis and burned in bonfires.

The story is told by 19-year-old Paul Baumer, a volunteer to the German army during World War I. Fresh out of high school and straight to the battlefield, Paul and his comrades are soon turned into “old folk” and “wild beasts,” as they try to make sense of this hell, reeking of sulphur, excreta, clotting blood and death. The book begins with a lull, when the contingent is at “rest, five miles behind the front,” and queuing up for food. At the head is the hungriest, Albert Kropp, “the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal”.

Paul and Albert apart, there’s Muller who still carries his textbooks with him and during a bombardment “mutters propositions in physics” and Leer. They joined as volunteers of war from the same class. We are told of their teacher, “stern little” Kantorek, who convinced them to enlist and the tragedy that befell their classmate Joseph Behm who had hesitated to fall into line.

He was the first to be hit and his friends had no option but to leave him lying for dead. They couldn’t blame Kantorek either, for “where would the world be if one brought every man to book.” Paul’s chilling, prescient words are impossible to forget: “There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best — in a way that cost them nothing. And that is why they let us down so badly.”

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 3:48:59 PM |

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