Erich Maria Remarque and the Nature of War
David Lark – World History 2
Unlike truly historical works emphasizing the human side of war, for example, Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, in which the author provides highly detailed accounts of historical events through the eyes of participants leading to an objective treatment and analysis of those events, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a novelization of the experience of German soldiers in World War I. Remarque thus follows a literary line which includes William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and extends through cinematic efforts such as “The Big Red One” and “The Hurt Locker”, which utilize historical context in order to examine the transformative nature of war on those most intimately involved. Each work examines a central theme, e.g., patriotism, cowardice, social change, brotherhood, etc., interwoven with and supported by details of various wars. The particular details chosen by the authors, with the possible exception of Tolstoy who seemingly left nothing out of his opus, are those lending support to that central theme. Thus, to understand the process used by Remarque in making his choice of which details of World War I to include in All Quiet on the Western Front, one must first ascertain his thesis and its origin. Referring to the biographical notes following the novel, we learn that Remarque “was himself in combat during World War I, and was wounded five times, the last time very severely (Remarque, 1928, p. 297).” That during the time of his service Remarque was near the age of his protagonist, Paul Baumer, suggests an autobiographical nature to the novel and lends credence to the story that no second hand account could provide. Yet Remarque does not take the opportunity to provide closure to his experience or to provide a set of objective conclusions to the war. Drawing again from the biographical notes, Remarque possessed “intense determination to concentrate in his fiction upon the worst horrors of the age, war and inhumanity (Remarque, 1928, p. 297)”. Three major themes can be found within All Quiet on the Western Front combining to support Remarque’s ideology – the legitimacy of statehood, the futility of war, and the dehumanizing effects of war. Given his experiences and his viewpoint, what details did Remarque expound upon and to what purpose? In a discussion among the soldiers as to the origins of the war, they openly question the authority by which war was declared. When Tjaden asks how wars begin, Albert answers, “Mostly by one country badly offending another (Remarque, 1928, p. 205).” Yet it is this notion of country which perplexes the most. In Europe’s past, wars were fought over disputes between smaller nation states by order and to the benefit of local rulers. This was clearly not the case in World War I, a fact not lost on the soldiers: “But what I would like to know,” says Albert, “is whether there would have been a war if the Kaiser had said No.” “I’m sure there would,” I (Paul) interject, “he was against it from the first (Remarque, 1928, p. 203).” What the soldiers had not yet come to terms with was the rampant nationalism that had swept Europe. Rising from the Industrial Revolution, nurtured by the Atlantic revolutions, and spurred by the globalization of trade, Europeans of smaller states set aside their notions of subjects under a common ruling dynasty to a sense of unity among peoples bound by blood, customs and culture. “All of this encouraged political and cultural leaders to articulate an appealing of their particular nations and ensured a growing circle of people receptive to such ideas. Thus the idea of “nation” was constructed or even invented, but it was often presented as an awakening of older linguistic or cultural identities (Strayer, 2011, p. 797).” Such were...
References: Remarque, E. M. (1928). All quiet on the western front. Ballantine Books.
Strayer, R. W. (2011). Ways of the world; a brief global history with sources, volume 2: Since 1500. 7th edition: Bedford/St. Martins.
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