This is the most raw, powerful, heart-wrenching novel about war that I’ve ever read. It should be the bible of the anti – war movement. If you ever want to convince someone war is bad, just give them this book to read. I am sure no one will ever think the same about war after reading it!
The novel has been so hard to stomach, so vehement, so shocking(maybe?) that I almost don’t know where to start. But I guess the scatological moment described at page 5(in my edition) is as good as any. I actually never considered, thought of or ever hear/read anything on this matter before, but I should have, as is such an important part of us, of our nature: how were soldiers dealing with the movement of the bowl??
“I can still remember how embarrassed we were at the beginning, when we were recruits in the barracks and had to use the communal latrines. There are no doors, so that twenty men had to sit side by side as if they were on a train. That way they could all be seen at a glance – soldiers, of course, have to be under supervision at all times.”
If that’s not enough, the opening scene comes close too: the joy of having plenty of food to share. That’s awesome you’d think. Well yes, but you see, that happened just because of a surprise attack that almost halved the battalion and the returning soldiers had the “privilege” of sharing the food intended for 150 soldiers instead of 80.
So now you know what I mean? You just open the book and are faced with the tragedy that is life at the front. You start to see how inhuman is to be a soldier. Especially at the time of the WW1. Young, innocent boys forced into battle for distorted values like: nationalism, patriotism, heroism, duty to ones country.
“[…] it wasn’t easy to stay out of it because at that time even our parents used the word ‘coward’ at the drop of a hat. People simply didn’t have the slightest idea of what was coming.”
“With our young, wide-open eyes we saw that the classical notion of patriotism we had heard from our teachers meant, in practical terms at that moment, surrendering our individual personalities more completely than we would ever have believed possible even in the most obsequious errand boy.“
They went believing that they are doing what is right, full of optimism and desire to protect the country, the nation and the people. But all that is quenched in the bud:
“We had ten weeks of basic training, and that changed us more radically than ten years at school. We learnt that a polished tunic button is more important than a set of philosophy books. We came to realize – first with astonishment, then bitterness, and finally with indifference – that intellect apparently wasn’t the most important thing, it was the kit-brush; not ideas, but the system; not freedom, but drill. We had joined up with enthusiasm and with good will; but they did everything to knock that out of us. After three weeks it no longer struck us as odd that an ex-postman with a couple of strips should have more power over us than our parents ever had, or our teachers, or the whole course of civilization from Plato to Goethe.”
And then the horrific conditions: not enough food, the lice, the rats, the front. Looking death in the eyes at every turn, loosing your comrades…
“Kantorek would say that we had been standing on the very threshold of life itself. It’s pretty well true, too. We hadn’t had a chance to put down any roots. The war swept us away. For the others, for the older men, the war is an interruption, and they can think beyond the end of it. But we were caught up by the war, and we can’t see how things will turn out. All we know for the moment is that in some strange and melancholy way we have become hardened, although we don’t often feel sad about it any more.”
And then you start to realize the absurdity of this constant fighting. Why for? Why would you go against people who in the end are just human beings like you?!
“It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, camarade! We always realize too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain. Forgive me, camarade, how could you be my enemy? If we threw these uniforms and weapons away you could be just as much my brother as Kat and Albert.”
But there’s nothing more absurd that the fact that even if you’ll ever survive this ordeal, you would never actually escape it.
“‘The was has ruined us for everything.’
He is right. We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from the real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things any more; we believe in the war.”
“[…] everything that is sinking into us like a stone now, while we are in the war, will rise up again when the war is over, and that’s when the real life-and-death struggle will start.
The days, the weeks, the years spent out here will come back to us again, and our dead comrades in arms will rise again and march with us, our heads will be clear and we will have an aim in life, and with our dead comrades beside us and the years we spent in the line behind us and we shall march forward – but against whom, against whom?”
This is certainly not a book one enjoys. Yet it is a brilliant book. A must read, in my opinion. Not only because describes war so vividly without hiding anything, putting all the horrible details out there for the reader to get a full, honest image of war; but because humanizes the enemy. The western narrative about war is ever so present, is in your face all the time and you empathize with all those soldiers who suffered and died at the hand of the Germans. Yes, the German soldiers were as much victims as all the western soldiers. Young, innocent lives tragically ended on the rug of the desire for power of a few. So unjust and immoral and beyond absurd. They deserve us acknowledging they were victims too. Was is horrible no matter on which side you are!
Erich Maria Remarque is a superb writer but so sorrowful. My first taste of his writing was Three Comrades, novel that I also recommend. I’ve read it right between our move from Italy to UK via Romania. Reading in Italian made me realize how bad Romanian translations are. But I’ve been lucky to find this old copy, from the communist era on my parents’ shelves and it turned out to be a absolutely gorgeous translation that I fell in love with. And then the story… Remarque’s poignant sorrow wrecked me. Such a tragic love story at a time when every man was trying to rebuilt his life after being at the front. A powerful connection between friends who stop at nothing to ensure that at least one of them has a shot at happiness. Even thinking about this novel makes me tear up!