‘This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling’- from Geoff Dyer's introduction
Few novels have described the reality of the First World War with such honesty and raw eloquence as All Quiet on the Western Front. The most famous German anti-war novel, it was based on Remarque’s own experiences in the trenches. Over a million copies were sold in the year after its first publication in 1929, and an award-winning film adaptation followed in 1930. The book was later banned by the Nazis, who also revoked Remarque’s citizenship.
Paul Baumer is 18 when he and his friends enlist, on the urging of a teacher who calls them ‘young men of iron’. Later Paul remarks: ‘Young? None of us is more than twenty. But young? Young men? That was a long time ago. We are old now.’ Idealistic recruits become caustic, hardened veterans through the daily horrors they witness and the attitudes of the complacent society which, in Paul’s view, has brought those horrors about. Some are slow to understand the new situation; one boy takes his physics textbooks to the trenches. The others soon realise they are in a nightmare world, where soldiers march to the front past their own coffins, where bodies can be blown apart in seconds, and where a pair of boots or a piece of bread is more important than any abstract notion of honour or patriotism.
Comradeship is the only solace, and there are jokes and lighter moments, as when the theft of a goose becomes an impromptu feast, but these become fewer as the casualties mount and the trauma intensifies. Remarque charts the mental breakdown and disconnection that takes place in a world that makes no sense, where men are ‘silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another’. A new introduction by Geoff Dyer places the book in the context of First World War literature written by ‘suffering victims of a war machine which had taken on a purpose and momentum of its own’.