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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A military novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history: All Quiet on the Western Front

The brief afterword to the Random House "Reader's Edition" (who else would buy a book?) of Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, makes two good points. First, the editor (can't find editor's name online; sad) notes that here is no heroism in this novel; that is, it differs from most war fiction in that the life and death of the soldiers is almost entirely a matter of chance. Though there are some scenes involving courage, or at least endurance (notably, the night the narrator spends in a bomb crater alongside a dying French soldier) we don't have the sense that skilled or heroic soldiers have any better chance of survival than anyone else. The soldiers are part of a massive human attack wall, and some are mowed down by bullets or killed by explosions (later, by the advance of tanks) without distinction, just by chance. This novel makes the case that the 1st World War was the worst possible set of circumstances for foot soldiers: the military technology was lethal and there was no defense against advancing forces - just two armies facing off in trenches and killing each other one at a time until one of the forces has nothing left: pure brutality. Second point: The Nazi party and government hated this novel, tried to stop distribution, would have killed Remarque had he not taken refuge in Switzerland, and in fact did kill his sister. The crime: Showing German soldiers and cynical, vulnerable, sometimes afraid, sometimes shirking orders or standing up to authority - in other words, a realistic portrait of soldiers and military life (editor also notes, as I have posted earlier, that you could pretty much change the proper nouns and this could be a novel about English, French, or even American soldiers). This portrait directly opposed the Nazi vision of valorous, patriotic, loyal soldiers devoted to the fatherland; in fact, the one character who espouses patriotism and service is despised by the young men he'd encouraged to enlist. All Quiet is a war novel in its purest form, devoid of ideology and almost outside of history (in that it could, with the necessary changes, apply to any modern military action).

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