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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
All Quiet on the Western Front is a novel written by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929. The novel was one of the first that to be banned in Nazi Germany. It outlines the extreme stress and physical ill that German soldiers experienced in the first world war, detailing it with powerful prose. Despite the book becoming banned in its home country, it sold a staggering 2.5 million copies when it was reprinted for the public. It serves today as one of the most realistic and horrific accounts of Nazi soldiers and their perils in the war. The main topics or themes in Remarque’s novel do it justice, painting the plot and a picture of life in the war and helping to tell others of not only the harrowing times soldiers went through but also the aftermath as they came out crippled and worn out, feeling betrayed by the ideology and their fellow people.
Remarque creates the character of Paul Baumer to help guide the reader through one of the major themes of generation. Baumer tells the audience of the difference between his generation and the generations of either his parents or much older soldiers. Both of those generations had time to live before the war whereas Baumer’s generation, unfortunately, didn’t have this chance. Baumer talks about his experiences with death, his generation’s knowledge only being limited to death. Baumer also explains how his generation’s lives were cut short by the advance of the war and how they had to “shoot it to pieces”.
Baumer and his friends often think about what life might be like in the future but they often look at this in a pessimistic way, with little for their generation to hope for. Paul and his friends have all sustained countless injuries, one friend Albert, for instance, had his leg amputated and another soldier speaks dismally about there being no chance of recovery from the stress of shell shock and bombs blowing up all around them. This generation feels lost and people realise that things will never be the same again. At one point in the story, Paul is confronted by the realisation of his generation in a hospital when he sees everyone like him dying and experiencing the same things as him.
Remarque’s novel highlights the theme of betrayal in countless cases. Paul’s lost generation feels betrayed by the fact that they have spent the best parts of their lives fighting for what they thought was right, trying to stay alive in the trenches and avoiding being killed by the enemy instead of making the most of these times. Paul feels betrayed by the older generation and their patriotic values. He feels as though fighting for patriotism and obeying orders from the older generation has let him down, for instance, when he is penalised after not saluting a general. All the military protocols and obeying orders had done nothing for Paul and his generation.
Paul feels as though his generation has been betrayed by their parents, always calling those that didn’t want to go and fight and take orders cowards, instead of acting as loving parents that would advise them not to go and fight to almost certain death. He feels a lack of trust in his parents and doesn’t share their values. In the same way, Paul feels betrayed by his teachers who must have known full well of the perils that would come to Paul and others, yet they edged them on to join up and fight for their country. All of Paul’s feelings of betrayal are highlighted in the part of the novel where he gazes around a hospital looking at the many casualties and victims who have been betrayed by people they have known to fight in this dismal war.
The portrayal of inhuman behaviour in war is what Remarque has captured best in his novel. Throughout the novel, the theme of inhumanity highlights the disturbing detail of death and horror all around, becoming a normal part of everyday life for his generation. Paul graphically describes countless atrocities, the consequences of heavy fighting and how soldiers have become accustomed to death, brutality, and violence like it’s commonplace. He also describes the amount of dead people that are witnessed with language that makes the reader sick to the stomach, such as when they pass through the “forest of the dead”. Accounts of putrefaction and nauseating smells and gruesome details about people’s limbs that are severed, even naked soldiers hanging dead from the trees – it all helps paint a picture of inhumanity in the novel.
Remarque describes the ways that soldiers fight, poking out eyes with bayonets and stuffing mouths with sawdust until the victims reach suffocation. Retaliation is fierce and swift, but there is nothing civil about it – it is almost animalistic and fiercely callous. The inhumanity of putting new, young recruits out into the field becomes all too apparent to the reader as they read about their sobbing, trembling, and madness in front-line scenarios as they fight.
Because of the tragic conditions that all men were facing, a great sense of camaraderie is a powerful theme in this novel. This is perhaps the only positive theme of the novel. Everyone is unfortunately in it together and so the soldiers help each other out and feel part of a big group or kinship. A good example of this is when a terrified new recruit who’s gun-shy creeps over to Paul and lays his head in his chest – Paul mutters that he needs to get used to what’s out there in calm words.
Throughout the story, Paul hears the voices of his friends in his head who spur him on to keep going. This shows the heightened sense of camaraderie that serves its purpose as a coping mechanism for dealing with everything. The men support each other when they can, even if they don’t talk to each other as highlighted by Kat in the scene where he’s roasting a goose on a fire while everyone is silent – it doesn’t matter that people aren’t talking, he knows everyone is in it together for each other.
This novel puts the theme of nationalism at the forefront, showing that people had a strong ethic that everyone adopted to fight for their country. People pledged allegiance to their country and stood up to its defence by engaging in brutal conflict and doing whatever it took to defend it. However, as Remarque highlights, the idea of nationalism was in the end shown to be a hypocrisy used by higher-ups to control those below and get them doing whatever they saw fit. Schools of young boys were signed up to die for what they thought was a strong cause but in the end, fighting for their country’s glory was more like fighting for their own survival.
The themes in All Quiet on the Western Front all serve to paint a picture of the horrific problems that the younger generation faced. This novel employs such powerful use of themes to help the reader understand just how duped these fresh-faced schoolboys and others became to go off and fight for the good of their nation in a “glorious war” which ultimately saw them experiencing horrible and disillusioned life within the trenches. After reading this novel, one can hope that history won’t repeat itself at some point in the future.