Monday, March 14, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

For the Back to the Classics Challenge, we were supposed to pick one book with a war time setting. I decided that I should take this as a true challenge and read a book about WWI—something way out of my comfort zone. It’s bothered me for awhile that I hadn’t read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The book has been called by some "The Greatest War Novel of All Time." In fact, the praise is quoted (without attribution) on the cover of my copy. How have I gone for so long without reading it?

AQWF is narrated by the twenty-year-old German soldier Paul Bäumer. Along with several of his classmates, he enlisted in the army at the encouragement (or bullying insistence) of one of his school teachers. We follow Paul through about three years of war. He and his friends are sent to the front lines where they primarily fight in the trenches. The Germans are losing and the death toll is horrifically high. Paul and his comrades have little apparent interest in the war’s outcome; they want only to make it out alive. But slowly, inexorably, they die.

This is a very personal narrative, not a big picture of WWI. You don’t come away from it with a greater understanding of the causes of the war or the political maneuverings of the great men. We never learn the names of the leaders or generals. Those are not the things that interested Paul. This is the record of the daily struggle to survive the trenches. We watch a small group of young men move back and forth to the front line. The narrator does an extraordinary job describing the details of their struggles, from the joy in an extra ration of beans, to their (unsuccessful) schemes to rid themselves of lice and rats, to the way they tried to help the new recruits who were so poorly trained they fell in droves. But what stands out is the battle scenes. It is impossible to put oneself in the place of a twenty-year-old boy who has seen so much of death—slow agonizing death—as he drops to the ground while mortar fire explodes all around him. And yet the descriptions are so vivid you suffer for Paul. You can understand how he can be paralyzed with fear one moment and propelled to action the next. You can empathize with the way the men are forced to push aside their grief when one of their comrades dies. It is too overwhelming. Too frightening. There is nothing to be done for the dead. They have to concentrate their efforts on living.

This isn’t a depressing book. It is somehow beyond depressing because of its matter-of-fact realism. The novel’s message is stronger because it does not go into the big picture particulars of WWI. The trenches were horrible, but every war has its unique psychological horrors. By focusing so much on the individual soldier, this book shows the universal tragedy and waste of taking boys who are on the cusp of manhood, boys who should be about to begin their lives, and sending them instead to kill and to die.

This is a truly powerful book. The writing is so descriptive, so beautiful, you are right inside Paul’s head as he experiences the war. His thoughts run the gamut from simple and animalistic to profound. I’m hardly qualified to judge "the greatest war novel of all time" but I can recommend this classic highly. I won’t be forgetting Paul Bäumer anytime soon.


  1. Wow, this book sounds fascinating. I knew the title, but really didn't know what it was about... thank you for the review - I think I'll have to add it to "the list"

  2. I read this one when I was about 14 and it really did have a big impact on me. I'm glad you enjoyed it, it's an amazing book.

  3. Wow, what an enthusiastic, stunning and convincing review. I've wanted to read this book for quite some time. Now I want to read it even more. It sounds astonishing, but you'd have to be in the mood to take it on.