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Friday, October 21, 2005

cover of All Quiet on the Western Front

This is the story of Paul Baümer, a young German soldier in World War one. At the age of twenty, he is familiar with the brutalities of trench warfare, since he signed up with his classmates, after being encouraged (or shamed into it) by talk of patriotism by their teacher. The story follows Paul, and the various men in his unit, as they move up and back to the front lines of the war. Paul also goes home on leave for a brief, painful week, and returns to his unit; eventually, he gets injured, and spends some time in a crowded hospital, before returning to his unit. The book is narrated from Paul's perspective, except for the last paragraph, which is when the silence of the title falls: only after all of Paul's classmates and friends, and finally Paul himself, have also fallen.

This book is very bleak. I found it so dark that I had to intersperse my reading of this with something lighter. Horrible brutalities are related in a very matter of fact tone-- and Paul makes it clear that the soldiers must treat things in this way, because if they think about the war too much, they will go mad. They believe, and have to accept, that their survival (while others are blown to bits, or horribly wounded) is merely a matter of chance, so that they learn to be indifferent.

We have almost grown accustomed to it; war is the cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery. The deaths are merely more frequent, more varied and terrible.
One of the more believable and sympathetic problems Paul faces is his life before the war: when he goes home, it is difficult because his mother is dying of cancer, but also because he is not the same person he was before. He knows that the older soldiers, when the war is done, will go back to whatever trade they had before. But he is young enough that he has nothing to go back to, and can't imagine what he could do after this. He can't think about the war too much while he is on the front lines, or it will paralyze him; but he knows he will have to think about it later.

I can well believe that this is an important book, as a record of terrible things that should never have happened. As hard as it was for me to read this, it is good to be reminded of the atrocities of war, and to remember the horrible things that humans are capable of. It is hard to believe that, after suffering through all of this, Germany could go to war again so soon.

Title:All Quiet on the Western Front
Author:Erich Maria Remarque (translated from German by A. W. Wheen)
Date published:1928
Number of pages:256


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