This is once again one of those books I just missed out on reading in High School (like Lord of the Flies) because I swapped classes. And it’s a real disappointment that I never studied it then, because my teacher was amazing at the time, and it would have made this book extra special. Having said that, even without my teacher’s wonderful guidance, this is an fantastic book. I don’t think it’s really a book you should enjoy, but it was an enjoyable experience. I think, for me, this is probably the best war book there could be, a sentiment I think many other people share, since it is so well known. If you haven’t read it, you really are missing out on a great book, and if you think that you don’t like war novels, this is completely different (well, not completely since it still is a war novel, but you know what I mean). For a war novel it looks quite unassuming, only around 200 pages, completely dwarfed by some of the others in the genre. But as I said this is pretty different to others in the genre. Remarque was a German World War One veteran, so you can tell that what he wrote in the book came from some very personal experiences. This book does not romanticise war, it does not promote it, and it openly questions the point of it and explores the impact of war on the young men who went far from home to fight on the front line. It isn’t full of gory detail, and the actual ‘action’ sequences tend to be dulled, quickly over and not the main focus. I think for these reasons, it is set apart from other war novels, which I’m sure do deal with some of these things, but I think this one was probably one of the first. Of course the attitude provided by Remarque in the book was heavily criticised by some, and it led to being banned by the Nazi regime later on. After all it is largely an anti-war book, even though Remarque tries pre-text to say it is not putting blame on anyone or not promoting a particular political sentiment.
The book deals with Paul Baumer’s life as a soldier, a boy really, who signed up with the rest of his classmates at the insistence of their teacher. Just thinking about the fact that these boys really didn’t have any say in the matter, they were all essentially coerced into going despite some of them not wanting to, and even if they didn’t express anything, in that environment it’s hard to resist the pressure of the group. But this is reflective of reality, many young men signed up because they had little choice to do otherwise, if they stayed home they were ridiculed severely for being ‘cowards’, even those who couldn’t sign up for the war since they essential jobs.
As strange as it might sound, but for a while I was completely ignorant that this was from the perspective of German soldiers. I don’t know what happened, even with all the clearly German names, and a few mentions of French or English enemies, it didn’t click for a while. Part of this was intentional on Remarque’s part, because he never says outright that here are the enemies, these are our foes, and we are awesome. But still that was a little silly of me.
The story looks at not just life on the front line, but also the training grounds, leave back home and the hospital. All three of these provide interesting insights. The first shows that in the army, some people are there just to be in power. They love abusing the new recruits in whatever way possible. The interesting thing here is that their tormentor turns up later on the front line, where things are completely different, and it’s he who needs to learn and pay attention. The second is fascinating, because it shows that even once you return home, things aren’t normal. You can’t escape the war as much as you try, everyone pesters you, and it’s all optimism, and nobody understands. How can you ever tell anyone who wasn’t there about the horrors you have seen or committed? Another interesting moment was when Paul returned to the barracks, and was reprimanded for not saluting correctly. As if that mattered? He had seen people being killed out there, and what good did saluting and parading around done? Not a lot really.
The final of these three locations showed just how difficult it all was. The doctors and orderlies were under immense pressure, and they hadn’t the resources or time to effectively treat people. And they were under the pump to get more soldiers back out on the front line, so they signed forms clearing people to return, despite them not really being ready. It also showed another side, one where for some of the doctors, this was the perfect time to test out some new operations…
There were just so many aspects of this story, too many to cover here, and they were all insightful and thought provoking. The most I guess was when they questioned the necessity of war, and the impact it would have on this generation. For the former, they realised that as soldiers they had no qualms with the ‘enemies’ they were fighting against, and neither did the enemy. It was all because the leaders of the country decided that they were going to war. It seemed pointless to them, but they were still out there fighting. And to the latter, they were caught in a tough place. The older generation fighting the war, had family and a job to go back to. The ones younger than them didn’t have to go out and fight. They, were left growing up on the battlefield, and returning to a life with little left, apart from family, and perhaps a girlfriend. They had no job, and they didn’t even finish school. But how could you just return to school after fighting, it’s not something you switch off. This insight is something that I don’t think was really ‘mainstream’ for many decades. The fact that when you return home you need help to survive and live with the memories and readjust to everyday life. For too long, veterans were neglected.
All in all, I think this book has best captured the real impact of war. It has de-romanticised war without being gruesome, and without laying blame. It is a stunning book, and well worth reading.