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All Quiet on the Western Front

The novel All Quiet on the Western Front is set during World War I. Through its characters, it explores the experience the war had on German soldiers, with an especial focus on the psychological trauma caused by war. The title of the novel is not an exact translation of the German. However, it has become an important phrase in its own right within the English language, signifying a sense of apparent stagnation. 

Introduction to All Quiet on The Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1929 novel written by Erich Maria Remarque.  The novel is a fictional work about the physical and mental distress of German soldiers during World War I. The Road Back (the sequel) and All Quiet on the Western Front were burned and banned in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s reign. Erich Maria Remarque lived from 1898 until 1970, and was himself a soldier in World War I. Remarque was severely injured on the Western Front, and became a teacher after the war. The emotional simplicity of Remarque’s writing sold millions of copies of his book within 18 months after its release. His other novels include Three Comrades, Flotsam, and Arch of Triumph. In order to escape Nazi persecution concerning Remarque’s background and war service, the author remarried his ex-wife and left his home of Switzerland for the United States in 1939. His sister Elfriede Scholz was beheaded in retaliation, and Erna (Erich and Elfriede’s sister) was billed for the cost of the process.

Themes and background

Paul Bäumer is the main character of All Quiet on the Western Front, a German soldier encouraged by his teacher to join the war effort. The brutality of his experiences made this novel the first that did not romanticize war as a process of glory and patriotic duty. 

The theme of Remarque’s novel is, instead, the terrible consequences and effects of war on soldiers and the people they love. Detachment of soldiers from civilian life upon returning from battle is a major theme of All Quiet on the Western Front, and the novel speaks to the difficulties faced by soldiers returning home after participating in the war.

The technological advancements in weaponry during World War I also increased casualties and injuries to a catastrophic point; machine guns, flamethrowers, tracer bullets, and poison gas took war to a new level of atrocity. All in all, around 5,142,631 people died in World War I.

Historical context of World War I and the western front

The overriding fear and consistent awareness of being on the front lines of World War I was another focus of All Quiet on the Western Front. The dirty, wet, disease-ridden condition of life in the trenches was described as harrowing and primal in Remarque’s novel. Corpses were piled everywhere, and food, sleep, clothing, and medical care were often in short supply. Deaths of close friends they might have known from their childhood or school days occurred constantly, usually in one-on-one combat, rifle fire, or from poison gas bombs.

The side effects of war on the human psyche are often depression, despair, panic, remorse, and a feeling of complete helplessness in the face of death, disease, and fear. Remarque’s novel sought to be an honest depiction of the atrocities of war, and the resulting emotional barrenness of the soldiers who survived. 

Remarque felt that forced emotional loss caused soldiers to become less-than-human, acting more like automatons than people. The trauma Paul feels in the novel will not allow him to envision a future free of war, and numbs him to his feelings and beliefs as they were before the war. 

Remarque’s novel is not all gloom and doom, however; the close, life-saving friendships that arose from the events that occurred during the war bind survivors together tightly in loyalty and concern for one another. The novel does not consider the overall impact of WWI on society as a whole though.

Related works: Read a summary about The Hollow Men, a poem by T.S. Eliot about post-WWI Europe.

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