Sample of Barron's Booknotes
for All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria ReMarque
(used with permission)
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All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque
Remarque begins his book with a note before the
first chapter. In it he says that his book "is to be neither
an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure,"
but rather an account of a generation of young men who were
destroyed by the war- World War I- "even though they may
have escaped its shells."
What does he mean? Biography and history tell
us his situation. By 1929 when his book came out, World War
I had been over for ten years, but it was still affecting people
like him and his friends, who had gone from the schoolroom right
into the trenches. Many of them survived, but they felt as if
a shadow still hung over their lives. After all that time, they
still hadn't been able to sort out their feelings about the
Remarque says that he doesn't want to accuse or
blame anyone, that he certainly doesn't have anything new to
confess, and that he is definitely not trying to write an adventure
story- the kind of war story that's full of heroes and waving
If all of that is what we should not expect, then
what should we expect? Well, if he means what he says, he's
going to let the story itself show us just exactly what was
so destructive about World War I. Maybe it's the deaths of friends;
maybe it's the loss of ideals. We'll need to read the book to
find out. But we can expect every chapter to tell us something
to support his theme: that the First World War destroyed even
those who came through it alive.
The very first paragraph takes us within five
miles of the front lines. The men are resting on the ground,
having just stuffed themselves with beef and beans (the cook
is stiff dishing out more). There are double rations of bread
and sausage besides, and tobacco is so plentiful that everyone
can get his preference- cigarets, cigars, or chews. Whoever
is telling the story is right there, in it; this is what is
called first person narration. But the narrator (we soon find
out that he's 19 years old and his name is Paul Baumer) makes
clear that the whole situation is incredible:- "We have
not had such luck as this for a long time."
Where did the windfall come from? Paul says, "We
have only a miscalculation to thank for it." It turns out
that the quartermaster sent, and the cook prepared, food for
the full Second Company- 150 men. But 70 were killed at the
end of a quiet two-week mission when the English suddenly opened
up with high-explosive field guns.
Before we can stop to think about Paul's dismissing
all those deaths as a miscalculation, he backs up to tell the
whole story of how they nearly had to riot to get all that food
and tobacco. The cook, it seems, didn't care about the count;
he just didn't want to give any man more than a single share.
In the course of retelling how their noise brought the company
commander, who finally ordered the cook to serve everything,
Paul introduces all his friends.
They're an assorted lot: first, three of his classmates
from school- Muller, the bookworm, Albert Kropp, the sharp thinker,
and bearded Leer who likes officers' brothels. Then there are
three other 19-year-olds: the skinny locksmith Tjaden, the farmer
Detering, and the peat-digger Haie Westhus. Finally he names
an older soldier- the group's shrewd, 40-year-old leader, a
man with a remarkable nose for food and soft jobs, Stanislaus
NOTE: From their names we see that these major
characters are German, but it really doesn't matter. They could
just as well be French or English, so far as their experiences
At this point we don't really know if Paul, the
narrator, is as cold and unfeeling as he appears. He and his
friends seem to care much more about food than about the lives
of their companions. Is Remarque indirectly telling us that
war reduces people to animals? Or are the men just being realistic?
We'll have to wait and see.
The day continues to be "wonderfully good,"
says Paul, because their mail catches up with them. But one
letter angers them. It's from their schoolmaster, Kantorek,
who pumped them all so full of the glory of fighting for their
country that they marched down to the district commandant together
and enlisted. The only one who had to be persuaded was homely
Josef Behm, and he's dead already- the first of their class
to fall. Paul doesn't blame Kantorek personally for Behm's death,
but he does blame the "thousands of Kantoreks" who
were so sure their view of the coming war was the right one.
We were only 18, he says; we trusted our teachers and our parents
to guide us, and "they let us down so badly." He seems
to be saying that the war has cut them adrift from a meaningful
life, with no new values to replace the old ones. All the young
soldiers know for sure is that it's good to have a full belly
or a good smoke.
The friends go over to visit Franz Kemmerich,
a classmate who is dying after a leg amputation. Muller turns
out to be totally crude and tactless. Kemmerich is dying, and
Muller rattles on about Kemmerich's stolen watch and just who
will get Kemmerich's fine English leather boots. Paul, on the
other hand, recalls Kemmerich's mother, crying and begging Paul
to look after Franz as they left for the front. To Paul, Kemmerich
still looks like a child accidentally poured into a military
uniform. Perhaps war hasn't blunted his sensitivity yet, but
Muller's crudeness shocks us.
As they leave the dressing station, it is obvious
that Kropp, like Paul, is still brimful of feelings. Erupting
into anger, he hurls his cigaret to the ground and mutters,
"Damned swine!" He is thinking of the leaders who
sent them into battle and of people like Kantorek calling waifs
like Kemmerich "Iron Youth." "Youth!" thinks
Paul. "That is long ago. We are old folk."
NOTE: THE ROMANTIC VIEW OF WAR
From history we know that the Kantoreks passionately believed
the ideals they taught their children and students. World War
I broke out in what seems to us a largely innocent world, a
world that still associated warfare with glorious cavalry charges
and the noble pursuit of heroic ideals. Everyone- Allies and
Central Powers alike- expected a quick, clean war with a glorious
aftermath. Most Europeans, not just Germans, saw war as the
adventure of a lifetime. The popular English poet Rupert Brooke
thanked God in his poem "1914" for waking "us
from sleeping" and providing the opportunity to do something
new and clean in "a world grown old and cold and weary."
Americans were no different, though Stephen Crane's Civil War
novel The Red Badge of Courage- showing war in all its ugliness-
had been around for 20 years. Listen to the lighthearted tone
of patriotic World War I songs by George M. Cohan. Later in
the war and afterwards, poets and novelists (including Remarque)
dispelled the myth. The English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote
about a battlefield, "I am staring at a sunlit picture
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