NEW YORK—All Quiet on the Western Front remains the authoritative literary expression of the horrors of World War I. Its success in the United States is singular, for its author, Erich Maria Remarque, was on the wrong side. He was a German; he wrote from the far side of the war. Yet Remarque’s sentiments—war as meaningless, mechanical slaughter; trauma as a defining piece of our humanity—appear in war literature of all the European nations involved in the 20th century’s first outbreak of apocalyptic violence.
And today these ideas live on.
Just how powerfully Remarque’s portrait of war grips our imaginations came through in a discussion of All Quiet on Thursday. A refreshing mix of speakers gathered in the Remarque Institute’s new quarters on the eighth floor of 60 5th Avenue to discuss the novel. Convened by historian Larry Wolff, the group included professors from Harvard and NYU, but also a writer, Phil Klay, and an instructor at West Point in the departments of English and Philosophy, Captain Joshua Leone. Captain Leone teaches literature of the period, mostly the so-called trench poets, to cadets at the Academy.
Although Remarque’s novel deals with one specific conflict, it is often read as a condemnation of war at all times and places. And as Ulrich Baer, professor of German at NYU, said at the discussion, the book was meant to change minds. “The book was supposed to change the way a generation thought about war,” Baer said. To reveal the truth of war was to show “the vast destruction of human bodies for nothing. Here they gain a few yards, and hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands died.”
The 1930 film version also “propagandizes against the glory of war,” said Dana Polan, a professor of cinema at NYU. Directed by Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front was a prestige film for Universal Pictures. It won best picture in the 1930 Academy Awards.
Trench warfare came with its own particular horrors. But Remarque’s novel transcends its historical milieu: It is read in American high school and college classrooms not necessarily for its historical value, but for its forthright depiction of battles, bombs, wounds, hospitals. What matters is that Remarque was an excellent artist, more than the fact that he endured this particular conflict.
Other pieces of war literature work in the same way; they tend to universality in spite of their context. For instance: Wilfred Owen wrote “The Parable of the Old Man and Young” to describe the war that ultimately took his life, but it also captures a larger fact about human beings. It is one of the scariest poems of the 20th century. In it, Abraham takes Isaac to Mount Moriah in preparation for the sacrifice. He takes out his knife—
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
The “Ram of Pride” was hardly an early 20th century invention; nor did it die with Owen in 1918.
But it’s good to have someone like writer Phil Klay around during a discussion like this to remind us that there’s more to war literature than horror.
“Every once in awhile, I go to a college class with a title like ‘The Experience of War,’” Klay said. “When it’s geared to students of literature, their touch points for the experience of war are Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and All Quiet on the Western Front. Cruelty, meaninglessness, and slaughter—that they can understand. They have a lot more difficulty understanding why someone might join the military, or might enjoy it.”
Klay borrowed a conceit from Ernst Jünger’s essay “On Pain” to describe this lack of understanding. Jünger wrote:
These years display a strange mix of barbarity and humanity; they resemble an archipelago where an isle of vegetarians exists right next to an island of cannibals. An extreme pacifism side by side with an enormous intensification of war preparations, luxurious prisons next to squalid quarters for the unemployed, the abolition of capital punishment by day whilst the Whites and the Reds cut each other’s throats by night—all this is thoroughly fairytale-like and reflects a sordid world in which the semblance of security is preserved in a string of hotel foyers.
“I increasingly think of fiction writing as creating a space where the island of vegetarians and the inhabitants of that island of cannibals can have a conversation and hopefully both be made suitably uncomfortable,” Klay said. Readers of his National Book Award-winning Redeployment will know what he’s talking about.
It’s hard to imagine having these conversations about war—really having them—without talking to people who have actually experienced it. Phil Klay served in Iraq before writing his book. Captain Joshua Leone was wounded during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. We can probably do no better when talking about war than starting where veterans start. This seems particularly important in light of Leone’s comments Thursday.
Leone pointed to a hospital scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, a scene in which a young man dies after a leg amputation. Far from going to the dying man and recognizing him as a person, as Franz, the hospital staff refer to him as “Bed 26, amputated thigh.”
“So Franz’s story of life and dying and death is translated into a very jargony description,” Leone said. “His narrative is erased or usurped by the medical narrative.”
But what wounded soldiers—and maybe traumatized people of all kinds—need is the opposite. “What they need is to be able to tell their story or retell their story or make new connections and understand their new normal,” Leone said. “They need to have control of their own narrative.”
In a way that’s what Remarque did in All Quiet on the Western Front: He took control of his own story and changed the way we think about war.
Featured image: Lew Ayers and Raymond Griffith in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) / IMDb