It’s reportedly Donald Trump’s favourite book. But what is All Quiet on the Western Front about?
“We are in camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans, we have enough to eat and we’re well satisfied.”
So begins Paul Bäumer, the 19-year-old narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).
There are extra tobacco rations, he continues, and letters from home. Later, the comrades arrange their latrines in a circle so that they can sit, talk, empty the bowels and play cards for “wonderfully, mindless hours.”
As enjoyable as toilet time is for the young soldiers, the reason for the bumper rations is soon clear. Half the soldiers in Bäumer’s platoon have been killed in the trenches – and dead men don’t need tobacco.
Thus Bäumer recounts the First World War as a collection of heroic adventures and comic interludes – like a medieval knight’s tale, these are somewhat episodic and often thrilling. It’s an increasingly poignant series of events, however, as one-by-one his comrades falls victim to the war.
“Young? None of us is more than twenty. But young? Young men? That was a long time ago. We are old now.”
For Bäumer / Remarque, war is a gallop towards death; a merciless quest which sees old men send young men to die in foreign fields. These aren’t romantic, quiet deaths, either: they are gory and violent and stomach churning.
All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful anti-war novel. And, while the author’s preface claims the book isn’t an accusation, it was banned and later burned in Nazi Germany.
The book also isn’t a memoir, though parts reflect Remarque’s own experiences. Remarque was Bäumer’s age when he took up military service in WWI.
Still, as a work of fiction, what remains most true about it is how it addresses themes such as futility, friendship, death, class, and youth pitted against age (as well as innocence Vs experience).
It’s recognisably about human existence generally, and the pain of growing up / growing old. But it is most powerful as presented: the terror that Man is capable of unleashing on his own kind.
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by Brian Murdoch. London: Vintage, 2005.
First published as Im Westen nichts Neues (“Nothing new on the Western Front”) in 1929.
Other books like All Quiet on the Western Front
- Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood (Berlin just before WWII)
- Regeneration, by Pat Barker (WWI, anti-war)
Picture credit: Stijn Swinnen