All Quiet on the Western Front (German: Im Westen nichts Neues) is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. The book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from […]
All Quiet on the Western Front (German: Im Westen nichts Neues) is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. The book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front.
The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in late January 1929. The book and its sequel, The Road Back, were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany. It sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first eighteen months in print.
In 1930, the book was adapted as an Oscar-winning film of the same name, directed by Lewis Milestone.
The 1929 English translation by Arthur Wesley Wheen gives the title as All Quiet on the Western Front. The literal translation of “Im Westen nichts Neues” is “In the West Nothing New,” with “West” being the Western Front; the phrase refers to the content of an official communiqué at the end of the novel.
Brian Murdoch’s 1993 translation would render the phrase as “there was nothing new to report on the Western Front” within the narrative. Explaining his retention of the original book-title, he says:
Although it does not match the German exactly, Wheen’s title has justly become part of the English language and is retained here with gratitude.
The phrase “all quiet on the Western Front” has become a colloquial expression meaning stagnation, or lack of visible change, in any context.
FILM Plot summary
The book tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who—urged on by his school teacher—joins the German army shortly after the start of World War I. His class was “scattered over the platoons amongst Frisian fishermen, peasants, and labourers.” Bäumer arrives at the Western Front with his friends and schoolmates (Tjaden, Müller, Kropp and a number of other characters). There they meet Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older soldier, nicknamed Kat, who becomes Paul’s mentor. While fighting at the front, Bäumer and his comrades have to engage in frequent battles and endure the dangerous and often dirty conditions of warfare.
At the very beginning of the book Erich Maria Remarque says “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped (its) shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but rather gives a view of the conditions in which the soldiers find themselves. The monotony between battles, the constant threat ofartillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the lack of training of young recruits (meaning lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers are described in detail.
The battles fought here have no names and seem to have little overall significance, except for the impending possibility of injury or death for Bäumer and his comrades. Only pitifully small pieces of land are gained, about the size of a football field, which are often lost again later. Remarque often refers to the living soldiers as old and dead, emotionally drained and shaken. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”
Paul’s visit on leave to his home highlights the cost of the war on his psyche. The town has not changed since he went off to war; however, he finds that he does “not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.” He feels disconnected from most of the townspeople. His father asks him “stupid and distressing” questions about his war experiences, not understanding “that a man cannot talk of such things.” An old schoolmaster lectures him about strategy and advancing to Paris, while insisting that Paul and his friends know only their “own little sector” of the war but nothing of the big picture.
Indeed, the only person he remains connected to is his dying mother, with whom he shares a tender, yet restrained relationship. The night before he is to return from leave, he stays up with her, exchanging small expressions of love and concern for each other. He thinks to himself, “Ah! Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it.” In the end, he concludes that he “ought never to have come [home] on leave.”
Paul feels glad to be reunited with his comrades. Soon after, he volunteers to go on a patrol and kills a man for the first time in hand-to-hand combat. He watches the man die, in pain for hours. He feels remorse and asks forgiveness from the man’s corpse. He is devastated and later confesses to Kat and Albert, who try to comfort him and reassure him that it is only part of the war. They are then sent on what Paul calls a “good job.” They must guard a village that is being shelled too heavily. The men enjoy themselves but while evacuating the villagers, Paul and Albert are wounded.
They recuperate in a Catholic hospital and Paul returns to active duty.
By now, the war is nearing its end and the German Army is retreating. In despair, Paul watches as his friends fall one by one. It is the death of Kat that eventually makes Paul careless about living. In the final chapter, he comments that peace is coming soon, but he does not see the future as bright and shining with hope. Paul feels that he has no aims left in life and that their generation will be different and misunderstood. When he dies at the end of the novel, the situation report from the frontline states, “All is Quiet on the Western Front,” symbolizing the insignificance of one individual’s death during the war.
One of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life after having experienced extreme combat situations. Remarque comments in the preface that “[All Quiet on the Western Front] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” This internal destruction can be found as early as the first chapter as Paul comments that, although all the boys are young, their youth has left them.
When on leave from the front, Paul feels strongly isolated from his family and removed from daily life. Another topic concerns how soldiers’ lives are put at risk by their commanding officers who seem unaware of the trauma of their charges.
These themes continue today and many of us still don’t fully understand the mental stresses that causes our young soldiers when they go to war.