A Book by Erich Maria Remarque
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Thankfully, this self-imposed marathon of World War I material that I am going through has placed 1928’s All Quiet on the Western Front – A Novel at the top of my reading list. WOW! Why have I never read this before? I’ve known about this book for a long time, and saw it pop up an many reading lists, but never got around to it until now. It’s one of those books that many read in school, but sadly I was not so fortunate. You never know, I could have been one of many that would not have appreciated it at the time, but I definitely do now.
Written by Erich Maria Remarque, who was a German veteran of World War I, the story was based on some of his experiences during the war. A classic regarded to many as THE quintessential war novel, it has been turned into multiple films and TV adaptations through the years with a new version coming this year on Netflix. The version I read was translated from German to English by Arthur Wesley Wheen in 1930; I know there is a newer version, but I wanted to read the “classic version” that many fell in love with.
“Considered by many the greatest war novel of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front is Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece of the German experience during World War I.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. . . .
This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army during World War I. They become soldiers with youthful enthusiasm. But the world of duty, culture, and progress they had been taught breaks in pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principle of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another . . . if only he can come out of the war alive.”
Despite the age of this book, it is undoubtedly timeless and just as powerful as it was nearly 100 years ago. As we speak right now a major world power has just pumped tens of thousands of young conscripts into a foreign country to their ultimate slaughter, and for what? A benefit for those young men? Absolutely not! Perhaps the more times change the more they stay absolutely the same. The way this story is written, somehow both simple and poetic at the same time, is not something I was expecting.
At its absolute base-level this is your typical “boys adventure” story, with all the Hijinx you can imagine such as a daring goose theft, sneaking out to meet with young girls, and boyhood camaraderie that shapes every young man’s life. However, this format is applied to the inhuman horrors of World War I to show that despite their literal age (19 or so), these boys have lost their innocence entirely. Paul especially doesn’t see a place for himself in society anymore by the end of the story, a sad fact of life when you drop kids into situations like this.
What sets this novel apart from literally any other “war novel” that I have ever read is that rather than bog itself down with military jargon and action scenes, it makes the focus of the plot the characters and their personal interactions. This isn’t your typical “dad book” on a spinner at the local CVS drugstore, this is a heart-felt look at the fragility of mankind and mindlessness of war that eschews propagandist “hoo-rah war is awesome” nonsense for something meaningful.
I have read a lot of great books this past year, and this is easily one of the best so far. Erich Maria Remarque was not even on my radar until this week, but he may have joined the ranks of some of my favorite authors out of nowhere. I see he has a number of other books translated into English that I plan to read including a book widely regarded as a sequel to this one. If you read one war book in your lifetime, put down all those Tom Clancy and Brad Thor books and snag a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front – A Novel – I honestly don’t think you will be disappointed. Stay tuned for future reviews by this author, as I promise I will read more.
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One weird thing – WHY does the Kindle Version of this book have a picture of a cowboy and cacti on it?