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.
—Erich Maria Remarque
The reason why I decided to read Im Westen nichts Neues was a little naive. Aged sixteen and studying twentieth century history at school I was curious to read about the experience of the war from a German perspective. How often are we constrained to our own country’s version of events? I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, perhaps some portrayal of nationalistic fervour, slander against the English or a platoon of ferocious German men-turned-soldiers. Yet ironically after a few pages, one of the things that struck me most was that the narrative could have been written from the point of view of a British, French, or American soldier: the daily experience of war, the suffering, was no different.
Nonetheless, this is also a novel with a close focus, shedding light on the impact of the war upon the ordinary Private—a member of the ‘lost generation’. Our narrator is the direct, albeit sensitive 19 year old Paul Baümer, who has enlisted in the army in 1914 with his friends, goaded, initially, by a sense of ideological patriotism, and the spirit of adventure. It is this scenario which gives Baümer’s story its particular poignancy. Emerging straight from their school classroom, these boys experience the harrowing transition from students to soldiers as they face the blood, mud and massacre of trench warfare. Friendship is certainly one of the most uplifting themes of the novel. Remarque examines the enduring camaraderie which could stop a soldier taking his own life, or which could carry him bleeding, a ‘splinter of shrapnel in the head’ through a hellish wasteland.
Baümer’s home leave is an especially intriguing part of the novel. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he is unable to reconnect with his past life. His family doesn’t understand him, and their sympathies cannot help him. How can they? War seems to exist in a time-zone of its own. Returning home from the front he gazes upon the books, notes and letters which he once treasured, now devoid of meaning for him; there is no redemptive power to be salvaged from those pages. They are merely shadows of his past self: ‘words, words, words-they can’t reach me…’
The final lines of the novel are damning, but not out rightly cruel. Remarque dwindles between exploring the degenerative effect of war and the solace of finding peace in death. Baümer’s first person narration then abruptly changes to the third person. This switch of pronoun hits us hard. Baümer is snatched away from us and from his narrative. He is no longer the observer, but the observed; he becomes an outsider to his own story:
“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so still and quiet…that there was nothing new to report on the western front”
After reading Im Westen nichts Neues I was left feeling restless, saddened and a little empty. I began to research Erich Remarque’s life, which is truly fascinating and gives us a new insight into his masterpiece. Remarque was born in Germany in 1898 and experienced first-hand the horrific ordeal of life on the Western Front. His account is honest and realistic. When the Nazis had risen to power, and 10 years after the publication of the novel, they stripped Remarque of his German citizenship and later executed his sister. Perhaps most shocking of all is that the Nazis banned and publicly burnt Im Westen nichts Neues, seeing it as a betrayal of the German soldier. His novel, testament to the supposed “the war to end all wars”, was thus cast aside only to give way to a second war of mass genocide. A hundred years on from one of the deadliest conflicts in history, I urge you to read Im Westen nichts Neues. Wartime heroism never tasted so bitter.