There is a generally prevalent notion, among literary authors if not among historians, that World War I marks a sort of dividing line in history, a point of irreversible transformation. The map of Europe was transformed, of course, but along with it came cultural and psychological transformations. In a reductive sense, much of what defines modern literature--alienation, deracination, nihilism, existentialism, abstractism--has its origin in the that conflict.
Yet I know of very few good literary accounts of the war itself. My favorite World War I book, Parade's End, provides a few good scenes of Christopher Tietjens being shelled in the trenches, but for the most part it's about what goes on at the fringes of the war, and back home in England. For the French and Germans, there was no "back home" in that sense, and perhaps for that reason All Quiet on the Western Front could only have come from a continental writer like Remarque.
All Quiet is narrated by a young German soldier, Paul Bremer, who recounts the experiences of his tightly knit group of friends. It is at times disturbingly graphic about the reality of war, as in one memorable scene in which Paul, unexpectedly finding himself occupying the same foxhole as a French soldier, stabs his enemy to death. The fear of being murdered is one particular horror, and the murdering another, but it is worse still that Paul must spend the remainder of the skirmish with the man he has killed, looking into his open eyes. The French soldier is relatively lucky; Remarque goes to great lengths to show us that there are much more gruesome deaths to be had on the front lines.
Even in the midst of the physical actuality of war, Paul and his friends are keenly aware of the way that the war has changed them. Paul is granted a couple of weeks' leave, but at home he is uneasy and fails to fit in as he once did; home is not what it was because Paul is not what he was. Remarque clearly spells out the break between the war generation and its predecessors:
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. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke into pieces.
...We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.
You might certainly read something similar by an Englishman or an American, but there's a special poignancy in that Remarque writes from the German perspective. The knowledge that Germany will lose this war hangs over the novel, the knowledge that the atrocities come to nothing. One might ask what the victors of World War I got for their troubles, too--but I think that only the losing side could produce a novel that really lays bare the pointlessness of the bloodshed. There's a great scene in which Paul and his friends, stationed near the front lines in France, sneak out in the middle of the night to have sex with a group of French girls, whose brothers and cousins perhaps they may kill the very next day. The scene with the French soldier in the foxhole says something similar about the two sides:
This dead man is bound up with my life, therefore I must do everything, promise everything in order to save myself; I swear blindly that I mean to live only for his sake and his family, with wet lips I try to placate him--and deep down in me lies the hope that I may buy myself off in this way and perhaps even get out of this; it is a little stratagem: if only I am allowed to escape, then I will see to it. So I open the book and read slowly:--Gerard Duval, compositor.
With the dead man's pencil write the address on an envelope, then swiftly thrust everything back into his tunic.
I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval. I must be a printer, I think confusedly, be a printer, printer--
You can see why the Nazi regime banned All Quiet; Paul's experiences do not leave room for the kind of trenchant nationalism the Third Reich required. But beyond that there is a tangle of guilt and victimhood that threatens the Nazi justification for war. Is Paul morally responsible for the soldier's death in the way that he feels at this moment, or does that feeling conflict with the feeling of victimhood, of being pushed into war without understanding it, that pervades the rest of the novel? I'm so fascinated by Paul's feverish need to "become" the man he has killed--partly to reanimate him, to retract the act of murder, partly out of a sense of justice, but also because to become the printer, Gerard Duval, is to relinquish the role of killer in exchange for the role of the killed. Is it better to be the dead, or to go on living, as Paul must, with his conscience?
Bonus: Brent's review from 2010.