“We can bear almost anything. But now the sweat breaks out on us. We must get up and run no matter where, but where these cries can no longer be heard”
Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was published in November, 1928, nearly ten years exactly since the end of the war it documented. It was a rich time for the publication of manuscripts, diaries and novels from the war: written perhaps out of a sense of delicacy, when the pain of the survivors was just beginning to wane. Or perhaps they were written out of fear: that a topic of great monetary potential was being passed over – that a calamity that had been called ‘great’ was about to be forgotten.
Before it had been two years in print, it had sold 2.5 million copies and had been translated into 22 languages. Its coarseness and vulgarity was taken by some to be mere attention-getting for its schlock and shock value. For its ugly realities ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was one of the first degenerate books to be publicly burnt by the Nazis in 1933.
The novel opens with a statement which is a declaration of honesty and distance, that it is “neither an accusation nor a confession”. The author’s intent is only to describe the experiences of a single platoon of German soldiers, whom “though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war”.
Specifically, it is the story of Paul Bäumer whom, along with the rest of his class, was urged by his professor to join the army. His classmates were eventually scattered throughout the trenches that had just begun to circulate, branching like veins, from Belgium to Switzerland. Battles were never mentioned by name, but retained a shroud-like presence in every chapter, a destructive force even when the guns are silent or when the soldier is on leave.
Paul endures the filth and boredom of trench life that was never mentioned in his professor’s idealistic tirades. The stress and fear which makes a soldier long for home is relieved only by the detachment he feels when he gets leave to visit that haven, wary of describing experiences no one could understand. It creates a sickness of mind (‘shell shock’, ‘neurasthenia’) that would only be recognized, and just barely, later in the war.
Towards the end of the war, all of Paul’s friends are either missing or dead. Despite the rumors of peace he only sees a future that is empty, trapped within a generation that will be perpetually misunderstood. On the day of his death, the report from the front to headquarters was “all is quiet on the western front”.
And it is there that the novel ends; a harrowing journey that ends in the worst way, with a death that means nothing, that symbolizes nothing – a single, blank, unrecognized effort among millions.
In 1930 the book became a film of the same name. Screenings were besieged by Nazi-organized protests; there were mob attacks on theater goers: proof that the war was not over. But for all the ugly attention, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its lead actor, Lew Ayres, became a star.
Ayres work on the film did something more important than inaugurate a career. It made such a profound impression on him that in 1942 he was registered as a 4E conscientious objector and sent to a CO camp. He eventually served in the Pacific as a medic, setting up evacuation hospitals and providing care to soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea, winning three battle stars. All of the money he earned during the war he donated to the American Red Cross. When Ayres resumed his career, he continued his work in film, but never attained the peak he attained when he played a soldier suffocating in mud and despair.
I have seen the film, and it is an honest, honorable effort. Hollywood however could not help but tie too neat of a bow on an ending which was supposed to mirror war’s hopelessness and desolation. Towards the end, Paul – who counted butterfly collecting amongst his civilian hobbies – sees a butterfly alight on the soil and wire of No Man’s Land. He is off screen, but the viewer sees his arm outstretched towards the creature. Suddenly, there is a crack of a sniper’s rifle, the arm stiffens, and then is still.
Before the screen is dark, there is an image of white crosses, marking an expanse of German graves. It fills the screen. Superimposed on the crosses is another image: that of a group of young soldiers clad in gray and wearing their pickelhaube helmets. One by one, each looks over his shoulder towards us: his expression full of disbelief, distrust, confusion, fear. It is a vision that is hard to forget.
Remarque’s bleak and realistic depiction of war struck a chord with the survivors – of the warfront and the home front – and commentary around the world was passionate, whether it was positive and negative. Critics accused him of denigrating the German war effort, of exaggerating its horror and sins. They insulted his endeavor. In short, many of them did not believe him.
I began this piece with a quote from the novel. The cries referred to are not from the men, but from the horses – terrified, eviscerated, their eyes rolling upwards in white-eyed panic. The sound is not human, but it is not quite animal. The horses haven’t the wit to wish for death, to pray to God or beg for help. All they know is an agony that is unexplained and inescapable.
The men heard these soul-destroying cries and one, named Detering, – who had been a farmer – is particularly appalled. Before the all clear is sounded and the wounded men could be gathered, he tries to bolt from their trench to shoot the animals and put them out of their misery. But he is stopped, lest their current position be revealed. In disgust, he says “It is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war”.
For me, this one episode puts the lie to all the claims that ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was nothing but a fantasy published to demean the German army and cash in on the new pacifism. Simply said, no one could make something like this up. This is another vision which is hard to forget.
And this could be war’s saving grace. That the dreadful memories will one day lead to a universal disgust and leave us only with a collection of histories that can’t be forgotten.