Remarque was born in Osnabrck, Lower Saxony. His mother was Anna Marie Kramer and father, Peter Maria Kramer, a bookbinder. He drafted into German army at the age of 18, and was wounded several times. After his discharge, Remarque had taken a teacher’s course offered to veterans by the government. Remarque began his writing career as a sporting journalist, and assistant editor of Sportbild. Fame came with his first novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, which touched a nerve of the time.
In the 1930s Remarque’s books were banned by the Nazis. All Quiet on the Western Front was among the works consigned to be publicly burnt in 1933 by the Nazis. In 1938 Remarque lost his German citizenship, and left Germany after that. First, Remarque went to Switzerland and moved later to the United States, where he made friends with Hollywood stars. He died in Locarno, on September 25, 1970.
All Quiet on the Western Front presents the gruesome specter of war as it actually exists and as soldiers experience it. The opening chapter is devoted to presenting the novel’s main themes: the horror of war and its effect on the ordinary soldier. It also emphasizes, at every turn, the unheroic, unglamorous, horrifying life of a soldier in World War I, underscoring the extent to which the brutalities of war strip away the moral and mannered aspects of human beings.
These three paragraphs that I am analyzing are but an excerpt from All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel written by E.M. Remarque. It was originally published in Germany as Im Western Nichts Neves. However, let us not be too hasty to condemn this novel just because it is a piece of work written in Germany. It gives us a first person perspective into the life of the soldier Paul Baumer. A very realistic view I might add.
This novel starts out very strangely indeed. In the first couple of paragraphs, we become relaxed by the words and are left totally unprepared and unprotected for the horror that is to come. This is not to say that what comes next is incredibly gruesome, or violent; it is more that you get a view of the stark reality of a soldier’s life and are shocked by the brutality of things. For every extra minute of enjoyment, or extra bit of food, a life is lost. I will discuss this further towards the end of the essay.
The first paragraph starts out innocently enough. However, there is something about it that doesn’t ring true. “We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans.” What is most curious is that he says that their bellies are full. This is what first seems out of place. A soldiers’ belly is NEVER full, even when he is relieved. The next couple of lines are almost as strange. “We are satisfied and at peace”. A soldier is hardly ever satisfied and at peace. Keep in mind that this is going on during a war. What kind of soldier is at peace during the war; especially a soldier that has just retreated. These people must be on edge all the time; peace is unattainable in that state of mind.
However, as the paragraph continues, those suspicions are put to rest. We are comforted by words. Everyone is happy. They all have full bellies; they even have enough to eat to fill a washbasin with more food. All the soldiers are comfortable and at ease. The war seems to be the last topic on their minds. Baumer is so carefree that he can even criticize his friends’ behaviour. He describes Mller’s decision to fill his washbasin with food as foresight, whereas in Tjaden’s opinion this is voracity.
This not only indicates that he is so bored and calm that he has nothing better to do, it also points out something very interesting. Baumer must have been very good friends with these people to be able to criticize them like that. This shows us that, even in war, friends are needed. These men would not have been able to get through the war if they had not relied upon each other. This shows that whatever the circumstances, camaraderie is always important. It also puts us at ease with the passage. These men are all close friends. In our mind’s eye, we imagine them laughing and joking together; having fun and enjoying themselves. We see this and we say to ourselves, “Oh, they must be happy, just look at how jovial they are”. This also lulls us into a sense of security. I mean, what could be more secure than the comfort of knowing that your friends are about and you have a good time with them?
In the second paragraph, things are still happy, but they begin to be a bit ominous again. When Baumer says that he traded his chewing tobacco with Katczinsky for ANOTHER twenty cigarettes, bringing his total to forty, we get a bit worried. When he goes on about how this should be enough for ONE SINGLE DAY, we get even more worried. It seems to me that Baumer must be a pretty nervous fellow to smoke FORTY cigarettes in one day. The war does strange things to people, but I have never heard that one of its side effects is chain-smoking. Maybe our analysis of him wasn’t correct, maybe he is under more stress than it seems. Then again, all soldiers are under stress, maybe they have learned to deal with it and are actually happy? We shrug of that somewhat ominous warning of some climax to come and head on down the page.
The third paragraph begins to display a sense of something amiss. In its two lines and a bit, it waters those seeds of doubt that have been sown into our consciousness in the past two paragraphs.
“We have only a miscalculation to thank for it”, both us, the readers, and the soldiers think. We assumed that all was well. All is never well in war, peace is non-existent, and being satisfied implies one thing only, being dead. A soldier becomes satisfied with life, or tired if you will, and he dies. That is all that the word means in war, it does not mean happiness, not now, not ever. Our mistake was to take what we read for the truth, and not to read between the lines. We fell for it “hook, line and sinker”.
We were all lulled into a sense of security, and when the full scale of what had happened was evident to us, we were shocked. The brutality and senseless killing of it all chilled us to the bone. The horrors of war have become so routine that Paul mentions that nearly half of his company was killed with the same detachment that marks his descriptions of mundane details. All of a sudden, our view of these soldiers changes. These survivors are more concerned with whether they will receive enough to eat than with the deaths of their friends and comrades. “This shockingly callous attitude serves the structural function of creating suspense and motivating development of the story.”
How dare these selfish bastards enjoy themselves and be merry when more than half of their comrades had been killed? How dare they revel in the luxury of having a full belly and being at peace? It is just not fair that these soldiers benefit from their fallen mates, and then forget all about them.
Unfortunately, life isn’t fair and these egocentric men do a great job of biting the hand that fed them.