In the years following World War I, much of the literature on both sides of the Atlantic was strongly anti-war in sentiment. The enthusiasm and idealism that people felt when war was declared and when they signed up and rallied for war soon soured in the trenches, with both sides crying out “never again.” Of course, that universal desire to avoid conflict died with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, having lasted less than 20 years. But in 1928, when All Quiet on the Western Front was published in Germany, the anti-war sentiment was still strong.
The war the German leaders promised (and expected) a war that was supposed to last only months. The expectation of all the generals and the rulers was that the war would be over by the end of 1914 – Germany’s clearest road to victory was a defeat of France within six weeks, followed by a war on the Eastern Front against a weak opponent, Russia. German war efforts, to be successful, required a short war.
When the German efforts were stopped at the Marne in September 1914 and the paralysis of trench warfare set in, the destruction of a generation of young men was the result. Brutal peace terms were exacted on Germany at the war’s conclusion, as Germany was seen as the chief aggressor in the conflict and the party most responsible for the war.
The bitter disappointment that followed the high hopes resulted in a great bitterness and cynicism towards the rhetoric of war together with a call that war as a solution to a country’s differences with another country come to an end. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel follows Paul Bremer, a young man in the German infantry on the Western Front. The novel, told in first person, opens at a point where Paul has been at the front for a little more than a year, having joined in those first few months.
No longer the idealistic high schooler, who enlisted together with his entire class in a burst of patriotism at his teacher’s insistence, Paul, in his time in the ranks, has learned to see through the slogans of war. As a student, he puffed up with pride and patriotism at his teacher’s referring to his generation as “the Iron Youth;” now, as a soldier, he is much tougher and worthy of that appellation, but his toughness is aimed at staying alive and keeping his sanity, all the while feeling disdain for the slogans of war and the people who utter them in ignorance.
A coworker of mine told me that the English translation by A. W. Wheen, though adequately translating the German, does not capture the tone of the original. Paul is a teenager, a gymnasium (equivalent in the US would be college prep) student, who entered the war at the age of 17, and by the book’s conclusion, is just shy of 20. According to my colleague, Remarque has Paul deliver the narrative in the first person in language and tone appropriate for a youngster. And so, the more standard English of the translation misses the slangy teen language of young Bremer, though capturing the literal meaning of the words. The translation does better, though, in those places when Paul gets more intellectual or philosophical or even poetic (as young people are wont to do).
If you have not read this book already, you should. All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the key books of its generation. In the late 20s and early 30s there were very few in the US or Europe who hadn’t read the book, or seen the justly famous film version, directed by Lewis Milestone, which starred Lew Ayres as Paul. If you’ve not seen the Milestone film, put that on your must-watch list.
The book and film were both very influential in their time, though ironically, the idealism of the book and film (that such war should never happen again, and now that the clarion call against war rang out, would never recur) which countered the jingoistic idealism that got Europe into the great war, proved just as illusory and helped to blind Europe to the possibility of a second great war. Britain and France were quite willing to believe that Hitler would not risk war. That blindness led to the very martial horror the idealists and pragmatists hoped to avoid.