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The Cold Embrace of Modernity

In All Quiet on the Western Front

French 37
French "37" in firing position on parapet in
second-line trench. This gun has a
maximum range of a mile and a half, is
more accurate than a rifle, and is capable
of firing 28 rounds a minute.
Dieffmatten, Germany. (June 26, 1918)
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque opens a window to WW I German life and death via the experiences of a common man, Paul Baumer, who joins the army and tells us his story about the war. His viewpoint appears to be anti-war, but paradoxically, Paul and his comrades often celebrate and benefit from, death. Paul Baumer fights in a modern war employing the latest technology and he purports to speak with compassion for an entire generation of German youth. He rejects all notions of Homeric classical heroism and the teachings of Christianity. Paul and his fellow soldiers ridicule and hold in contempt, traditional authority figures like generals, government ministers and professors. They see every day as a struggle just to stay alive and their “knowledge of life is limited to death.” [1] Their world is a clear break from earlier generations and foretells much of the cruelty and inhumanity that characterized Germany and Europe in the 1940’s.

On the surface All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war novel or more precisely, journalism. It is written in the first person and the characters are not well developed nor do they often interact in meaningful ways. The figures of the book often appear as caricatures that give voice to political or social points of view. The book contains many small episodes that are heavy on facts; where, what, when and how, but light on character interaction and development. Remarque would have us believe that all soldiers shared his fatalistic outlook and rejection of classical values. This simply is not true as evidenced by Ernst Junger’s War Diaries, another very popular German book about WW I. Junger “gladly accepts the whole system of German militarism from his sergeant to his Kaiser. He is a soldier and executes the orders of his superiors without questioning their authority” [2] states critic Wilhelm J. Schwartz. None the less, All Quiet on the Western Front was a vastly popular book that spoke to millions of people, in the midst of tremendous social and political turmoil, between the two world wars. Deep within its pages lie many truths that quietly reveal a part of the German national character and its response to the dawning of a new age; modernity.

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Erich Maria Remarque was a modern, realist writer. He used the example of a common man’s experiences, not those of a general or a political leader, to graphically demonstrate the horrors of trench warfare. Time and time again he paints pictures of soldiers ripped apart by the machine gun’s unceasing and impersonal hail of bullets. Who can forget the poor soldier whose hands were left hanging on the barb wire when the rest of his body was severed away by machine gun fire? Or the dead, blue faced and black lipped soldiers in the trenches, after the most modern of weapons, gas, was showered upon them? Interspersed with the graphic horrors of war are scenes of simple and often sensual pleasures; eating beef and beans with his comrades in arms, smoking cigars and cigarettes and experiencing the beauty of nature while traveling to or from, the front. It is the juxtaposition of graphic war and peaceful pleasures that gives All Quiet on the Western Front much of its power. It is from this context, that one of the deeper meanings of the novel, starts to emerge. The struggle between a simpler and often heroic time when man lived in harmony with nature and modernity where advanced technology often and impersonally tore men to pieces, destroyed nature and made living heroically impossible.

The rejection of traditional authority and classical, Homeric heroism starts early in the novel when Paul Baumer reminisces about his schoolmaster Kantorek who we are told, now represents thousands of middle aged Germans. Kantorek urged his young pupils to enlist in the army, fight for glory and defend the Fatherland. His patriotic and moving speeches fell on mostly receptive ears. One boy hesitated, Josef Behm, but eventually the entire class volunteered for duty. “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future.” Remarque states when characterizing Kantorek. He continues “The idea of authority which they represented was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a manlier wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. ..the world as they taught it to us broke in pieces.” [3]

Millions of humans were dying while a new, modern morality was growing on the battlefield.

Josef Behm was the first classmate to die. He was abandoned for dead on the battlefield by his fellow soldiers and classmates who did not even bother to check his pulse. Blinded, but only knocked unconscious, Josef rose up in pain, cried for help to his comrades and was cut down in a hail of enemy gunfire. Much later in the novel Mittelstaedt, a fellow classmate, holds Kantorek responsible for Behms death when he says “If it had not been for you he [Josef Behm] would have lived…” [4]Remarque tells us that his soldiers developed great camaraderie. He confidently proclaims “But by far the most important was that it awakened in us a strong, practical sense of esprit de corps, which in the field developed into the finest thing that arose out of the war – comradeship.” [5]In practice, Remarque’s soldiers often held their individual lives and need to survive, in highest regard. Remarque confirms as much when he rationalizes “we turn into animals when we go up to the line because that is the only thing that brings us through safely” [6]. In a chilling and historically foretelling statement, Paul usurps the traditional role of a Christian concept of God when he agrees to kill a young wounded German soldier by calmly stating, “Yes Kat, we ought to put him out of his misery.” [7]Remarque was correct; the world of his father’s generation was breaking apart. Millions of humans were dying while a new, modern morality was growing on the battlefield.

Remarque tells us that “the wrong people do the fighting” [8]and has Sergeant Katczinsky state:

Give ‘em all the same grub and all the same pay
And the war would be over and done in a day. [9]

Kropp, the thinker, offers perhaps the first post modern view of war as popular entertainment when he suggests that the ministers and generals, dressed in bathing suits and armed with clubs, should fight it out in an arena. Equality of military rank or social standing does not necessarily lead to tranquility as evidenced by the monumental atrocities in 20th century communist countries. When war is thought of as entertainment, we can all become subjects of terror in a society like the Roman Empire, that was built around gladiatorial games of death.

German Soldiers
Germans in their well protected trenches
on the Belgian frontier showing the men
in the act of aiming at their enemy.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Christianity was on the wane in Germany for over 150 years before All Quiet on the Western Front was penned. That tradition continued in the novel with Christianity barely mentioned despite the horrific carnage and death. Dying men in trenches do not offer to accept Christ as their savior; they simply die like jellyfish washed up on a beach, with the life drying out of them, under a hot sun. Christian holidays are not celebrated but death often is. Death brings double rations, full bellies, spacious lorries and fine English boots to the living .The protagonist, Paul Baumer, remembers his pretty church back home and the warm sculpted stones that depicted the stations of the cross. He never seems to realize that he is carrying his own cross and will soon arrive at the last station. He wonders if “when I am twenty, I shall have experienced the bewildering emotions of love.”[10] while seemingly not understanding a basic tenant of Christianity; that Jesus loves every man if one will only allow Him into his heart. At one point he screams at the nuns in a hospital to stop praying, he cannot stand the noise of it. Baumer’s mother constantly prays for Paul’s safe return but we never once hear her son thank the Christian God for her or anyone else. The Christian concept of God is so removed from Paul’s life that we hear him state “It is just a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit.” [11]

Individual lives, especially German lives, were disposable commodities in All Quiet on the Western Front. Josef Behm was only the first to be left for dead on the battlefield. Numerous times we are treated to scenes of soldiers presumed dead being passed by on the battlefield or the wounded being promised that a stretcher will be sent for them. Dead and dying soldiers are left to rot in bomb craters and emit strange noises as they decompose. One benefit Remarque tells us is that the fat rats are no longer a problem in the trenches. When almost half of Paul Baumer’s company is killed, the remaining men are happy and satisfied, for they receive double rations. The pending death of comrade Kemmerich leads to a heated debate about who will get his fine English boots. Compounding the disrespect for the traditional Christian concept of sanctity of human life was Paul’s bald faced lie to Kemmerich’s mother regarding her son’s death. His cruel lie, premised on “everything that was sacred to”[12] him, presaged his own death when he said “May I never come back if he wasn’t killed instantaneously.” [13]Young recruits quickly replace the dead men and they too die in droves. It is postulated that the war will not end until Germany is devoid of life. A little over twenty years later the German government would routinely lie to innocent civilians as they were loaded into trains and sent to Nazi death camps. Many Jews were required to pay for their tickets and were told that they were simply being relocated. Death camps often had fake train station fronts so arriving passengers would not be alarmed. Gas chambers were frequently disguised as public showers. German deceit and a cold disregard for human life first appeared in World War I and was common practice in World War II.

When the traditional bonds of a people are broken, and nothing replaces them, then death is the only common bond that remains.

Paul Baumer often treated the enemy with kindness, respect and humanity. He apologized to the Frenchman, Gerald Duval, that he stabbed in the bomb crater. “Comrade, I did not want to kill you…I see you are a man like me”[14] he cried while giving him water and making him comfortable. Baumer searched Gerald’s wallet and discovered that he had a wife and son. Superficially, Paul and Gerald, were like each other. However their culture, ideas and attitudes were worlds apart. Later in the book Baumer gives cigarettes, jam and cakes to Russian prisoners and comments on how dreadful they are treated. He seems to forget the endless painful days and sleepless nights caused by excruciating hunger that he and his comrades experienced at the front. Germany simply did not have enough food to feed everyone adequately. Baumer’s myopic and self reinforcing vision sees the enemy soldiers, French and Russian, as pawns of power, like him. They are fighting a war that they did not want and do not believe in he rationalizes. It is seductive to think that Remarque is commenting on the brotherhood of man and how we are all human. However it is a superficial brotherhood and one that many Germans were exempt from. The dead German soldiers, who were closer to true relatives of Baumer, were killed or wounded by the French and Russians and lay rotting in bomb craters and providing food for rats. The idea that unites Baumer with the enemy is one of perceived victimhood and ultimately, the brotherhood of death. For the first time in written history, soldiers on all sides of the battle, are depicted as unwilling players in a deadly game started and controlled by others. Ideas previously thought to be worth fighting and even dyeing for, ideas of nationalism, liberty, love of country, freedom from fear, Christian brotherhood and the sacredness of family are all rejected by a generation that rightly perceives that it is lost. When the traditional bonds of a people are broken, and nothing replaces them, then death is the only common bond that remains.

Tank
A British tank going over a trench
on the battlefield.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Remarque witnessed and accurately recorded the horrors of modern, mechanized warfare. His prose conveys a sense of futility while describing fighting from trenches and at a distance from the enemy. Classical, personal hand to hand combat is rarely experienced. Far more common is death by the potent and impersonal machine gun, artillery shells launched from unseen canons and silent, asphyxiating clouds of gas. Ironically, tanks, a new weapon invented by the British that is often credited with hastening the end of the war, “more than anything else embody for us the horror of war.” [15]They are Remarque states “a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armour clads, invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and wounded – we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their colossal weight our arms are sticks of straw…” [16]Homer’s Achilles nor Napoleon and his cavalry could ever have survived the mechanized battlefield of the early 20th century. It was a lesson not lost to a new generation that would inherent post World War I Germany. They created technology that directly addressed the inhumanity of modern warfare that Remarque so passionately depicted in All Quiet On The Western Front. That new generation of Germans, under the tutelage of Remarque’s contemporaries, invented the jet engine, V2 rockets, Panzer tanks, Zyklon B and modern crematoriums that would impersonally kill tens of millions of people, and with greater efficiency then ever before in history.

Paul Baumer...often celebrated death with his comrades and finally welcomed the cold and impersonal embrace of death.

In the last chapter of All Quiet on the Western Front Paul Baumer finally performs what some might see as an act of classical heroism. For the first time in the novel, he picks up a lightly wounded comrade and risks his life by carrying him to the medical tent while an aeroplane drops shrapnel bombs from above. The wounded man is Kat, the affable sergeant who was Paul’s mentor; the man who often provided him with food and guidance. Paul could not let this man die for his own miserable existence depended upon Kat’s wide ranging knowledge and skills. A small piece of shrapnel from the aeroplane’s bombs punctures Kat’s skull and unknown to Paul, Kat dies while being carried to the medics. Not surprisingly, Paul Baumer, now alone in this modern and brutally hostile world, soon succumbs to a well placed shot from a random, distant and impersonal sniper. “Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad that the end had come.” [17] Remarque’s character, Paul Baumer, rejected classical and life affirming values. He often celebrated death with his comrades and finally welcomed the cold and impersonal embrace of death. It was a scene that his and a younger generation of Germans, would tragically replay on the world stage, just 21 years later.

Trench
Repairing a front line trench after a bomb explosion fifty yards from enemy trenches.
D. W. Griffith in civilian clothing. During filming of the motion picture
"Hearts of the World" in France (1917).
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

End notes

[1] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 266.
[2] Wilhelm J. Schwartz, Modern Critical Interpretations: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001), 41.
[3] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 11.
[4] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 176.
[5] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 26.
[6] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 139.
[7] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 72.
[8] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 40.
[9] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 40.
[10] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 119.
[11] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 100.
[12] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 183.
[13] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 183.
[14] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 226.
[15] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 279.
[16] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 280.
[17] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), 291.

Additional Resources

Parting Thoughts

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

— Written by John McCrae on May 3rd, 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer in World War I in Flanders, Belgium.

TimsLife.Com Author's Note
I memorized the above poem in third grade for the celebration of Armistice or what is now called, Veterans Day.
My dad always bought a single red poppy on Memorial and Veterans day to pay tribute to and remember those who gave their lives in service to our country. Like the red stripes on our American flag, red poppies are a reminder of the blood shed by our veterans. In Flanders Fields a sea of red poppies provides the visitor a moment to reflect upon the horrors of all wars, silently remember and thank those who served, sacrificed and fell in service to our country. May God bless our country and our veterans.

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