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All Quiet on the Western Front ()

Library Journal: Top 150 of the Century (43)

Stop me if you've heard this one before.  Young men are whipped up into a martial fury by their elders.  They march eagerly off to war despite some reservations about military discipline.  Thanks largely to ineffectual leadership and sketchy strategy, the boys begin to get chewed up.  They realize that they have more in common with the enemy soldiers they are fighting than with their own leaders.  Even in the face of the insanity of War, many of the young men perform admirably, even heroically.  Our youthful, but prematurely aged, narrator: (a) accepts this reality and decides to fight on only in order to save his comrades; (b) rebels and walks away from the war; or (c) is killed or horribly wounded.

Of course you've heard it before.  Every war produces this same novel, in many different versions.  You might think that only the losing side would take this view; not so.  Look at some of the major American novels of WWII: From Here to Eternity (1957) (James Jones  1921-1977) (Grade: A+);
The Thin Red Line (1962)(James Jones 1921-1977)   (Grade: C); Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)(Kurt Vonnegut 1922-)     (Grade: C);  Catch-22 (1961)(Joseph Heller 1923-) (Grade: A); this is hardly the triumphal literature we might expect from the winning side in the World's greatest conflict.  This is because all wars are awful.  The young men who fight the wars, hate them.  They return home and write about how their wartime experience consisted of long periods of boredom, hunger, cold (or hot), loneliness, and terror, punctuated by brief interludes of greater terror, carnage, brutality, and death and dying.  To that extent at least, every war is the same and it is the same for both the victor and the vanquished.

So the very best war literature must get past this basic template and mine a different vein.   Thus, James Jones wrote a very pedestrian war story in Thin Red Line, but a great one in From Here to Eternity.  The difference?  From Here to Eternity is less about War itself and more about the peculiar attraction that the military exerts even on fundamentally free spirited American boys.  It explores the fine line that exists between the man who is determined and talented enough to make a great soldier and the man who is so willful and stubborn as to make a horrible one.  Ultimately, it raises questions about whether it is even possible for the American spirit to conform to the rigors of military discipline.

All Quiet on the Western Front, while it is a perfectly acceptable entry in the "War is Hell, Especially My War" genre, is never anything more than that.   There is not a surprising moment in the book.  Of course the combatants were tricked into fighting and their leaders are dolts and the enemy soldiers aren't really bad guys and so on and so forth.  No preconceived notion is questioned.  No new ideas are offered.  In fact, there is no real reason to read the book unless it's assigned reading.

Wingnut responds:

I disagree.  Every piece of war literature doesn't necessarily have to get past the basic template of death and dying.  If you consider it a genre and let it stand on its own merits, then All Quiet is one of the best. It is also one of the first to provide graphic detail of the consequences of sending sons into the carnage.  After learning of war through textbooks and little green men in the sandbox, this was my first and most impressionable taste of the horrors of war.  The gas, the guns, the trenches, the smells, the mud all came alive for me--and still stand out in my mind as some of the most disturbing yet poetic passages I have ever read.

Grade: A

Orrin rejoins:

I can hardly argue with the personal impression that this book made on you.  However, it is important to realize that All Quiet was hardly the first realistic presentation of the horrors of war.  Every generation that goes to war finds their war to be uniquely horrible and produces fiction that presents their experience as graphically as possible in order to convince the folks who stayed on the homefront of this fact.  In this sense, All Quiet is indistinguishable from Red Badge of Courage (see Orrin's review) or for that matter from the Illiad.

The problem with the book lies not in the anti-War message, but in the lies it propounds about WWI in particular.  Unfortunately they have become the accepted of the history of the War.  For an excellent corrective, I again urge you to read Niall Ferguson and John Keegan.

The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson and The First World War (1998)(John Keegan) (Grade: B+)


Grade: (C)


Erich Remarque Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Erich Maria Remarque
    -ESSAY: The legacy of Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front' (Ayg├╝l Cizmecioglu, 06/22/2023, Deutsche-Welle)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) - pseudonym for Erich Paul Remark - the German family name Kramer spelled backwards (kirjasto)
    -EXCERPTS: ERICH MARIA REMARQUE: All Quiet on the Western Front
    -Who was Erich-Maria-Remarque?
    -The Erich Maria Remarque-Archive
    -Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) (Feuchtwanger Memorial Library, University of Southern California)
    -Erich Maria Remarque (Spartacus)
    -GERMAN CULTURE: Erich Maria Remarque  (1898-1970)(
    -Pox.Remarque.ORG is a courtesy machine for the No More War! Foundation
    -ESSAY: 1944: THE YEAR I LEARNED TO LOVE A GERMAN (Mordecai Richler, NY Times Book Review)
    -All Quiet on the Western Front Teaching Guide (Random House)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (SparkNote by Selena Ward)
    -San Diego County Office of Education: Teacher CyberGuide  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
    -Discussion and Reading on WW1
    -REVIEW: of OPPOSITE ATTRACTION The Lives of Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard By Julie Gilbert (CARYN JAMES, NY Times Book Review)

    -The Great War  (pbs)
    -Trenches on the Web: An Internet History of The Great War
    -Major Battles of WWI
    -Charles Fair's Battlefield Guide
    -Encyclopaedia of the First World War
    -The major museums of Europe, commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918
    -LINKS: WAR, PEACE and SECURITY GUIDE: Military history: World War I (1914-1918)
    -The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (PBS)
    -The War Times Journal: The Great War Series
    -The Great War Society
    -REVIEW: Noel Annan: Grand Disillusions, NY Review of Books
       The Generation of 1914 by Robert Wohl
    -REVIEW:   James Joll: No Man's Land, NY Review of Books
       Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
       The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights
       Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage
       Frieden für Europa: Die Politik der Deutschen Reichstagsmehrheit 1917-18 by Wilhelm Ribhegge
       German Liberalism and the Dissolution of the Weimar Party System, 1918-1933 by Larry Eugene Jones