Although it’s far too well known in the English-speaking world by its translated title, Remarque’s original German title, Im Westen nichts Neues, means something more like “Nothing New on the Western Front”. While the English title conjures up a deceptive lull before the storm, the original German is an ironic comment on the death of yet another soldier, and perhaps a whole generation, being nothing sufficiently new to be worth reporting.
The novel was first serialised at the end of 1928, then published in book form in January 1929. It became an instant bestseller. By the end of that year more than thirty translations had appeared, followed in 1930 by an Academy Award-winning Hollywood film directed by Lewis Milestone (and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., of Universal Horror fame). When the film reached Germany, the National Socialists, newly voted into being the second largest political party in the country, campaigned to have it banned for its supposed negative take on the “reputation of the German soldier”. They saw their success on this front as their first major victory over democratic Weimar Germany. (When they achieved full power in 1933, Remarque’s novel was one of the first books to be publicly burned.)
As a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t really have a story. (The very lack of anything by way of a change in the narrator’s fortunes — a way out of his Hell — let alone one due to his own actions, could well be part of the point.) There’s nothing he can do but go where he’s told to go and try to survive. Rather, the novel does its best to present us with all the basic types of situation a WWI foot-soldier might have found himself in: initial training in bootcamp, waiting for orders near the front, at the front and under fire, on leave and unable to adjust, on duty guarding POWs, back at the front and stuck in no-man’s-land, one-on-one combat with an enemy in a bomb crater, in hospital watching fellow patients being taken one by one to the Death Room, then back at the front once more…
From the start, it feels like a sourcebook of all those telling moments you find in so many subsequent novels, films, and TV shows, which illustrate the brutality and horror of modern warfare in a single image. One after another, like a series of trump cards being laid down, you get them in single-paragraph snapshots: helplessly listening to screaming, wounded horses; watching a beloved friend dying in a hospital and wondering who will get his boots (“For us, it is only the facts that count. And good boots are hard to come by.”); the young recruit the narrator takes under his wing, telling him all the tricks on how to survive at the front, only for a random chance to blow him away; the wounded comrade the narrator carries back singlehandedly for medical help, only to find, on arrival, he’s been dead for some time…
What will quickly become clichés of modern warfare fiction are all there: the comrade who, despite the privations of the front-line, can always get hold of those little luxuries; the ultra-strict training officer who goes over the top in breaking his charges; the old men at home who know all about how the war should be fought; the dead enemy soldier with the photo of his wife and child in his wallet… But there are also so many scenes you don’t get in subsequent films and fiction, and which must have really been shocking to those first readers — those who hadn’t witnessed such scenes themselves — for instance, when the narrator and a fellow soldier pass an all-but denuded forest, and speculate idly on why the corpses hanging in the trees are all naked. It’s because they’ve been blown out of their uniforms, it’s just a thing that happens.
What probably seemed among its most notable qualities back then — and certainly one that riled the Nazis — is it’s not pro- or anti-German. It takes no real political sides at all. As the translator of the edition I read, Brian Murdoch, points out in his afterword, Remarque’s narrator almost never uses the word “enemy”. The soldiers are all too aware that the people they’re fighting are simply recruits like themselves:
“‘It’s funny when you think about it,’ continues Krop. ‘We’re out here defending our homeland. And yet the French are there defending their homeland as well. Which of us is right?’”
To these foot-soldiers, the war’s no longer a thing to win or lose, it’s a thing to endure and survive — and survive at the most basic level:
“We set out as soldiers… we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.”
Remarque’s main point, though, is how the war was harshest on one specific generation:
“Things are particularly confused for us twenty-year-olds… The older men still have firm ties to their earlier lives—they have property, wives, children, jobs and interests, and these bonds are all so strong that the war can’t break them. But for us twenty-year-olds there are only our parents, and for some of us a girlfriend.”
This is a generation that went straight from school to the front line, egged on by ultra-patriotic schoolmasters preaching heroism and a greater Germany, and who had no chance to experience anything like the life they’d been brought up to expect. Suddenly, once the shells started falling, they find it has all been a lie, and none of them has had the chance to build up any experience to the contrary:
“They [our teachers] were supposed to be the ones who would help us eighteen-year-olds to make the transition, who would guide us into adult life, into a world of work, of responsibilities, of civilised behaviour and progress—into the future… But the first dead man that we saw shattered this conviction. We were forced to recognise that our generation was more honourable than theirs…”
Education suddenly means nothing, because it had all been preparation for a completely different world:
“Nobody taught us at school how to light a cigarette in a rainstorm, or how it is still possible to make a fire even with soaking wet wood—or that the best place to stick a bayonet is into the belly, because it can’t get jammed in there, the way it can in the ribs.”
Something underlined most poignantly by another comrade’s death:
“Bertinck has been hit in the chest… After a few minutes he sinks down like a rubber tyre when the air escapes. What use is it to him now that he was so good at mathematics at school?”
Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970) had written one previous novel, published in 1920, under his birth name Erich Remark. He changed the spelling of his surname to the older Remarque (his grandfather’s name) to distance himself from that first novel, Die Traumbude, which he’d begun before the war. It has, apparently, never been translated. (The middle name “Maria” he changed — his original being Paul — in tribute to his mother.)
After having his writing banned by the Nazis, he moved to Switzerland, then to America, and then back to Switzerland in 1948, where in 1958 he married ex-Mrs Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard. He published a kind-of sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back, in 1931.