I was given a copy of All Quiet On The Western Front when I was seventeen, and had a long summer ahead of me before my last year at school. I was given a few classic novels, along with the suggestion that it would be good to have read some great literature before going to university.
Being seventeen I was snooty about the choices, and the need to read widely. As anyone who has ever been seventeen will tell you, that’s the age when you know absolutely everything. From then on things get a little shaky.
I made the choice to read the shortest of the novels on offer, that way I could scoot through them and at least show willing, so choosing a novel in translation was entirely accidental (I still haven’t got started on War & Peace). I thought it strange that anyone would want to read a World War I novel written from the point of a German soldier, after all, they were not only our enemy during that war and the next, they were also the losers.
Once I started reading All Quiet on the Western Front I could not stop. I was utterly gripped and it felt as though the book had an almost physical hold on me. Our narrator, Paul Baumer, joins the German Army early in the Great War, straight out of school, along with his classmates at the urging of his teacher. They are to head out to war to become men and achieve glory for the Fatherland. It sounds exciting, patriotic, heroic.
At seventeen I thought about my male friends and imagined them in a similar situation, heading out to war. It seemed improbable, they were too young, they’d never cope. I had the advantage of knowing how the great War turned out for 37 million people.
Erich Maria Remarque‘s genius in All Quiet on the Western Front is to write about the day to day. The boredom, the frustration, the hunger, the high jinx, the bowels. This builds empathy, and not a little pity, so when that narrative is repeatedly punctured by terrible violence, you feel the terror, you understand the breaking down and splintering of the boys who went to war.
There’s a home front too. One that I’d never thought of. I’d grown up hearing of rationing during World War II, of evacuation, and the reality of seeing oddly modern buildings in rows of older ones. My childhood neighborhood had been bombed during the Blitz, but I hadn’t really thought about the equivalent suffering of regular German families in the First World War.
I’ve re-read All Quiet on the Western Front at different life stages, and found something new in it, whilst retaining the old connection. I’ve bought plenty of copies for teenagers, and the reaction has often been similar to mine, from initial snootiness to shock and awe when reading it. If you haven’t read it, now’s the time. If you have, go ahead and send a copy to someone who could use a great read.
Not a reader? Here’s the trailer for the 1979 movie. The 1930 film is great. Here are the DVD and streaming options.