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IN OUR WESTERN WORLD, NOTHING NEW

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By Paul-John Ramos

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The Montréal Review, July 2021

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The 100th anniversary of Armistice Day occurred three Novembers ago, which pulled back our attention to the mass killing and ruin that has since been overshadowed by an even larger second war.  Intent on outdoing itself, mankind rapidly advanced through the 1920s, 30s, and 40s to racial extermination on a grand scale and nuclear armament that could someday erase us from this planet altogether.

Human folly’s exponential growth from 1918 to 1945 and beyond actually pushed the first war, which left a comparable mountain of dead bodies, filth, and wreckage, somewhat into the background.  The heinousness and outrage on one’s sensibilities that took place in World War II are so much greater and more impressing that they have to be absorbed on their own, with minimal interference from any other conflict.

The Great War, however, is part of a lesson for our current and future generations, if they choose to learn it.  The period from 1918 to Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 made it obvious that the first go-around fell largely on deaf ears and blind eyes, as national leaders and the populations who left them in charge failed to prevent a second huge mistake from happening.  Understanding why these two Great Mistakes happened and, in general, why wars can happen like they do, is part of our only hope to prevent another, especially one in which those with a shared cultural heritage are turned against each other.

Besides academic studies, the Great War’s message has been conveyed in a rich literature of novels, stories, poetry, plays, and memoirs that exploded several years after its fighting had ended.  In the case of aspiring writers like Erich Maria Remarque, who was conscripted into the German army at 18 years of age and wounded on five occasions, such men were treated to life-or-death struggles before getting any kind of footholds in their educations, careers, or private lives.  Those who managed to return home had seen friends die for what appeared to be the vanity of political zealots while countless survivors dealt with permanent physical damage and mental illness.  The soldiers who came back, many of whom were already handicapped by the after-effects of battle, often found it impossible to reintegrate into society.  Many could not return to work or school and the existing social services did not have a ready means for helping numbers so large.  Family life also suffered from the years of a soldier’s absence and relationships were often damaged beyond repair.

Although taking place during the war, Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)was written as a response to these post-war struggles faced by an average soldier.  First published as a book in 1929, it remains the pinnacle of literature to come out of World War I and has enjoyed a success that novels of any genre have seldom seen.  The book has been wildly popular amongst both critics and the public since its initial release; it is thought to have sold at least 50 million copies in more than fifty languages and is a usual entry on school reading lists.  At least two film adaptations have been made in English, including the Lewis Milestone-directed version that won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1930.

It should go without saying that All Quiet has not merely capitalized on a subject left untouched by other authors.  The field of Great War literature is considerable and made up of figures ranging from Nobel Prize winners to common men and women who went on a single venture into writing for the purpose of telling their stories.  Many types of writers were compelled to address the war from its very onset and voices even found their ways out of the trenches – the wave of British poets that included Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Isaac Rosenberg come to mind immediately when thinking of literary creation at the front.  But compared to during the war and those years immediately following the Armistice – when perhaps there was a need for gestation by both survivors of battle and those at home – the subgenre flowered around the time that Remarque began writing his novel.

When the novel first appeared, Remarque had his ‘competitors,’ as the term might be used from a viewpoint of publishing companies and agents.  Ernest Hemingway, who served as an ambulance driver in Italy, published A Farewell to Arms in the same year.  Less-remembered but still considerable names like Germans Arnold Zweig (who wrote a six-part cycle, The Great War of the White Men) and Ludwig Renn, the Frenchman Henri Barbusse (whose Le Feu was written as a soldier), and Portsmouth native Richard Aldington dotted the field of novelists and had some kind of audience established by the time that Remarque set about his work.  But in the months and years after its release, All Quiet on the Western Front took on a life of its own, surpassing all other war novels in enduring critical and popular appeal.  A Farewell to Arms and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind may be All Quiet’s only sizeable competition.  Classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace are, by comparison, impermeable tomes for mainstream readers and the prolificacy of novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, both undoubtedly fine works,seems to have faded after they initially reached best-seller lists.

The fact that All Quiet became wildly successful at a time when the public was lifting its veil from the Great War soldier’s experience led some critics to reject it as a work of pure opportunism.  And the fact that its author fared so well to begin with – Remarque received $90,000 in royalties just from American sales at the beginning of 1930 – gave detractors cause for suspicion even before considering the subject matter.  A number of critics who wouldn’t buy into All Quiet’s initial swoon rolled out the well-used argument that true literature couldn’t possibly sell hundreds of thousands of copies.  There were also several who cited Remarque for lack of authenticity in writing about the wartime soldier’s plights, others generally disliked his writing style, and still others in the German nationalist camp (foreshadowing later Nazi policy) considered the book an insult to their people’s true heroism.

Any of these opinions, no matter how reasoned or obtuse, tend to ignore the deliberate elements that make Remarque’s novel so effective.  Indeed, All Quiet benefited from amounts of luck but could only have done so with the right premise, technique, and sentiment that so many have come to appreciate over the last ninety years.  For a book of such urgency, Remarque achieves what is most important: a total readability and empathy.  It tells its story in a voice that virtually anyone can understand and relate to in some way.  Adolescents can listen to the narrator Paul Bäumer’s story while not feeling intellectually bullied yet holding some relation to his feelings at what should be the normal crossroads of one’s late teens.  Full adults, meanwhile, simply have to be moved by the thoughts of a young man whose psyche has rapidly developed in battle but who is still, in essence, a brittle and naïve figure.

Bäumer’s world is also filled with supporting characters who evoke strong reactions.  Away from the front are his close but ailing mother, vaguely present father, and warm eldest sister whose absences he is still struggling to cope with.  He is able to visit them on furlough but still feels emotionally distanced while at home.  On the front lines and in battle, Paul learns about the spirit of military comradeship and how these new connections must largely supplant the old, though most are destined not to last.  His support base becomes men like Katczinsky, their unit’s elder statesman, a clever and resourceful man at forty years of age; Tjaden, a locksmith with a big stomach for food and a lot of good fortune; Detering, a farmer whose constant thoughts of life in the meadows cause him to lose his head and run back towards Germany after seeing cherry blossom; and most agonizingly, Kemmerich, who slowly dies of infection in hospice despite his leg amputation, leaving behind a highly-strung mother who has ached for his return.

The relationships formed between Bäumer and these other men are beyond mere camaraderie in the off-hours.  They are a means of survival, a way of keeping as sane as possible and an added set of brains, eyes, and ears to guard one’s back during the horrendous series of experiences.  The soldiers’ tribulations are not necessarily supplied by an enemy; the chaos launched by opposing armies is more than enough to deal with but these men also have to face the twisted ways of their own superiors and live with the betrayals of those in everyday life who got them there.  The men presiding over Bäumer and his friends range from nondescript to addicts of schadenfreude: Corporal Himmelstoss, a smallish postman obsessed with drills and looking for every excuse to humiliate the men he’s training; doctors in the hospices who are jaded and lacking in compassion or gleefully digging instruments into soldiers’ wounds to see their reactions; and the Kaiser even makes his cameo appearance at a review of men during which Bäumer and his comrades fail to see the earth move – leaving them to wonder what all of the fuss is about.  German social structures inside of which Bäumer was raised are also put under bright light, particularly the system of education.  Bäumer’s school class was pressed by Kantorek, their headmaster, to volunteer for the war but the older man did not join himself.  He is later drafted into the army and humiliated by a higher-ranking former student in one of the novel’s darkly comical moments.

It is apt that the German Expressionist playwright Ernst Toller, who served on the Western Front for 13 months before having a nervous breakdown, praised All Quiet in a well-known review.  “No modern writer,” he wrote, “has more magnificently evoked a battle, a gas-attack, hand-to-hand fighting, a visit home on leave.”  All Quiet, while appearing painfully simple, is a highly expressionistic work whose first person vantage point (usually in present tense) makes the novel.  Though Remarque had several options, using anything other than the ‘I’ form might have resulted in just another war book.  Had he written in third person, the immediacy and tension felt in Bäumer’s narrative would have been lost or at least considerably reduced, not to mention that a narrator with no direct part in the war could have unintentionally drenched All Quiet in self-parody.  Another possibility was the epistolary form (comparisons of the novel have actually been made to Goethe’s Werther) but one could argue that the only difference between this and the existing All Quiet would have been a few dates and notations usually seen in letters.  This would achieve little, except possibly diffusing its intensity by giving us reminders of these events happening in the past.

The directness, unadorned syntax, and use of the first person present allowed Remarque to straddle a fine line between literature and popular fiction.  It is along this line that only a few writers have achieved deep-seated literary and financial success.  In the case of All Quiet, its phenomenon after initial release was hardly an accident; the book was heavily marketed by Remarque’s publisher, Ullstein, including serialization in its own newspaper before appearing in hardcover, as the firm could sense likely impact.  Yet letters from and interviews with Remarque – the latter of which were rare despite his flamboyant lifestyle – show that he was more concerned about an understanding of the Great War soldier’s tribulations and failures to reintegrate into society than adding to his bank account.  Remarque commented just after the book’s release that he was “suffering fairly of attacks of despair” at the point he began writing All Quiet in 1928.  Determining that his war experiences were at the heart of this anguish, Remarque’s novel became something of a catharsis.

All Quiet became a cathartic vehicle for Remarque’s contemporaries and remains as such for the generations that have followed.  Those who have experienced the ordeals of battle and survived to remember them can use his novel as a channel of mutual understanding.  For those who have never set foot in the military, it allows us to live these ordeals through the character of Bäumer and, in coming back safely from the nightmare, perhaps offers some slight consolation against the guilt of living as bystanders while thousands of others have become real-life casualties.

The success of All Quiet had more than enough drawbacks for a man who, despite living amongst celebrities that included girlfriends Marlene Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr and eventual wife Paulette Goddard, gave few interviews and preferred to stay in the background of press coverage.  The novel sold close to one million copies in Germany during its first year of release but became part, along with his follow-up novel The Road Back, of the infamous Nazi book-burning demonstration in May 1933.  Remarque’s depiction of war made him a reviled figure to the German fascist government and nationalists of other shades, who called for ruggedness and valour to restore their country.  Already living in Switzerland, he immigrated to the United States in 1939 with his first wife Jutta Winkellhoff, from whom he was divorced but remarried in order to avoid her being sent back to Germany.  In December 1943, his sister Elfriede was arrested and beheaded by the Nazis, largely because of Remarque’s perceived sins.

After the phenomenon of All Quiet, Remarque went on to write another ten novels, five plays, and numerous poems, essays, and magazine articles before his death in 1970.  As often happens to authors who experience fame early in their careers, he never attained the same heights again; perhaps the novel Arch of Triumph, which led to a film with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Charles Laughton, came vaguely close.  Remarque always had an audience and continued to write best-sellers but never to the degree of his first.  He once said himself, “there is nothing worse for an author than that his first book should become an international success.”  After All Quiet, his career was likely to head in one direction.

For all of its social examination, All Quiet is a very unpolitical book, with specifics of government and its leaders hardly being touched upon.  Remarque added to his enigma by staying away from political forums and lines of discussion, choosing to serve as an observer of his epoch rather than an activist.  Even when granting a rare interview after World War II, he preferred not to voice opinions on leaders of the day, considering himself unqualified for such matters.  He went as far as to refrain from criticizing Hitler, though he addressed the Nazi regime’s impact in books like Spark of Life, which follows a concentration camp prisoner in the final months before liberation.  This silence led to additional detractors who felt that he was not backing up his work when it counted most.

Remarque’s novel profited from its topic and time of release but would not have done so without considerable literary merit and the fact that its author, along with millions of other young men, endured agony in his formative years to make All Quiet’s content possible.  Today, war still slogs along in the Middle East and appears to be on the doorsteps of Asia and Latin America, the latter particularly in Venezuela.  The former Soviet republics still have gaping wounds from their issues with Moscow.  The United States, involved seemingly everywhere, are maintaining a delicate balancing act with Iran and North Korea and briefly reopened their contact with Cuba before again shutting it down.  The technologies to wage war have advanced and the names of current and potential participants have changed but the fears, sufferings, and awful resolve of those sent into battle are as unchanged as any other human emotion.

Arthur Wesley Wheen, the first translator of Remarque’s novels into English and himself an Australian veteran, is whom we owe for the title All Quiet on the Western Front, that single sentence contained in a German army report on the day when Paul Bäumer died.  The original title of Im Westen nichts Neues, however, literally translates as In the West, Nothing New, which better reflects an intended irony.  Our Western World had sent an entire generation through the filth of World War I, after which its survivors returned home and found themselves physically, mentally, and socially denied paths to a normal life and career.  The leaders and their populations who allowed them to take power learned nothing from the first war, making all of the mistakes that led to another; this was becoming obvious when Remarque began writing his novel in the late 1920s.

While conscription has gone out of fashion in some parts of the world and wars haven’t been waged on quite the same scale, atomic missiles now point in all directions and massive armies continue to drill for the apocalyptic battle that their generals anticipate.  This agitation looks as familiar as ever and Remarque has already conveyed to us what will be in store for all who are handed the means of battle and self-destruction.

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Paul-John Ramos is an essayist, poet, and short story writer.  His work has recently appeared in Trajectory, Adelaide, Serial, and Chest Journal (American College of Chest Physicians).

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