Erich Maria Remarque
About the Author
Erich Maria Remarque, born on June 22, 1898 in Osnabruck, Germany, was the son of Peter Maria Kramer, a bookbinder. The German Nazis, who banned and burned his books in 1933, claimed that his real name was Erich Paul Kramer and the pseudonym Remarque was his father’s surname, Kramer, spelled backwards. The public reason they gave the German people for destroying all copies of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back, the only two books he had written at the time, was that Remarque was the descendant of French Jews. They also banned and burned films made from the books and revoked his German citizenship in 1938.
In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany was a country on the verge of economic collapse. It had lost the First World War, which it started by invading Belgium and France in 1914, and the economic blockade by the allies during the war, and the economic sanctions placed on Germany after the war, all but crippled a once thriving economy. Prior to signing the Versailles Treaty (1919), which officially ended the war, the German soldiers fighting on the western front had little or nothing to eat, sometimes going for many days without food, and, in Germany, people were literally starving to death.
The country was also leaderless, the German people having no faith in, or respect for, the Weimar Republic government that had taken them to war, lost the war, and then signed the humiliating and economically devastating treaty. This gave rise to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler, a charismatic leader and eloquent speaker, told the people he would restore the honor the country had lost and rebuild the economy. He would give them jobs and food and make them proud of their German heritage.
Needing someone or something to blame for the failure of Germany, the Nazis decided that the Jews were the blame for all of Germany’s problems, past and present. Hitler told the people that they were a racially superior nation, and it was not the German people who were responsible for the loss of the war and the plight of the economy, but the fault of the Jews, who had ruined their country. He would eventually take
them to war again- WWII (1939-1945) - and attempt to eradicate all European Jews. Over 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War, a tragic period referred to as ‘The Holocaust’.
Remarque had barely started at the University of Munich when he was called into the German army in 1916. The war had been going on for two years and he was 18 years old, fresh out of high school – very similar to his protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Baumer. He was supposedly harassed by
H a Sergeant Himmelreich while in training, a character much like Corporal Himmelstoss, the detested, strict, disciplinarian leader of Paul Baumer’s platoon. He was wounded in the arms and neck by artillery fire in 1917 and returned to Germany, where he studied to be a teacher. He taught school, was a race car driver, and worked as a sportswriter while working on his first novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1924), a story about the life of a young German soldier on the front lines in France, which questions the value of war while illuminating its senseless destructiveness. The book was an immediate success, selling over 1 million copies in Germany and another million internationally. His second novel, The Road Back, which was about a group of ex-soldiers trying to live in defeated Germany, was published seven years later, in 1931.
Both books were controversial and hated by the Nazis. Most previous war novels had been about patriotism and heroism, and doing the right thing by fighting for your country and destroying the enemy, but All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back told a different story; painted a different picture. They spoke of the horrors of war and its aftermath, and how war took bright, happy, innocent young men and turned them into dull, unthinking, hopeless, instinctive animals.
Modern weapons were introduced for the first time in WWI. Poison gas, mustard gas, high-explosive shells, flame throwers, tanks, aircraft, and machine guns turned the battlefields of honor of previous conflicts into impersonal killing fields. Artillery barrages of 6,000 guns, pounding a small piece of the front, desolated whatever vegetation there had been and left a cratered landscape filled with the dead and dying, often stacked on top of each other.
During the First World War, over 9 million soldiers were killed, with several million killed on the Western Front- the British losses alone on the Western Front were over 750,000. Eleven percent of the French population, nine percent of the German population, and eight percent of the British population, were either wounded or killed during the war, while the Americans, who didn’t enter the war until 1918, had casualties of one third of one percent of its population.
On November 11, 1918, a hastily drawn up, unilaterally punitive, armistice that ceased the fighting, was forced upon what remained of a thoroughly defeated German army. The Treaty of Versailles was signed early the next year.
The story opens as Paul Baümer, a volunteer German soldier fresh out of high school, and others from his company, are resting a few miles behind the front. They have just returned from two weeks in the trenches where they were heavily shelled on their final day there. Those around Paul include Albert Kropp, Müller, and Leer, three of his classmates from high school who were prodded and badgered, along with Paul, into joining the army by their schoolmaster Kantorek, who pumped them full of the glory of fighting for their homeland. “Won’t you join up, Comrades?” Kantorek ardently believed in his convictions and had a romanticized, illusionary concept of war. Kroop, a lance-corporal, is the clearest thinker of the four, while Müller still thinks about high school, and Leer dreams of girls. They are waiting in line for lunch and are joined by their friends; Tjaden, a young, skinny locksmith; Haie Westhus, a 19-year-old peat digger; Dettering, a married, peasant farmer; and, Stanislaus Katczinsky (Kat), a former cobbler, the shrewd, cunning, 40-year-old leader of their small group.
The sergeant-cook has prepared food for 150 men, the company strength of 2nd company when it left for the front lines, but only 70 have returned, the rest being either killed or wounded, and he refuses to dole out the extra rations to those waiting in line. He is finally order to serve everything by the company commander and the men are overjoyed that they will be getting nearly double portions, since they seldom have enough to eat. They see it as a windfall and callously rationalize that the men not there are either dead and therefore don’t need the rations, or wounded, and will be fed at the hospitals and aid stations.
After lunch, Paul started to think about Behm, who had volunteered along with Paul and eighteen others from the same class. Behm was the only one of the twenty young, gullible classmates who had resisted Kantorek’s patriotic rhetoric, and he was the first to die. He was killed while trying to blindly return to the German side of the front line after first being wounded by being shot in the eye. Paul’s anger and frustration at the deceptions foisted on youth by supposedly better informed elders overcomes him.
“Naturally, we couldn’t blame Kantorek for this. Where would the world be if one brought every man to book? There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best- in a way that cost them nothing.
And that is why they let us down so badly.
For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress-to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.
While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards-they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”
Later, Müller, Paul and Kroop set out to visit Franz Kemmerich, another classmate, who is in a nearby hospital after suffering a flesh wound to the thigh. At the train station as they were preparing to leave for the front, Kemmerich’s mother had tearfully asked Paul to look after her son. Kemmerich weakly greets his friends and tells them that he feels alright except for a pain in his foot and that someone has stolen his good watch while he was unconscious. His friends lie and tell him that he looks fine and should be going home soon, although his dull, flat eyes are sunk deep into his skull and his face has the pallor of death. Müller asks Kemmerich about a fine pair of soft, supple, leather, airman’s boots that belong to him. He asks Kemmerich if he will be keeping them. Kemmerich, who doesn’t know that his leg has been amputated, is reluctant to part with his most prized possession, even to his friend. Müller keeps pressing Kemmerich until Paul stops him by stepping on his foot. Paul understands that his friend Müller wouldn’t really want to hurt Kemmerich in any way and is only being practical. Of course, the soft leather boots will be of no use to Kemmerich, as they were no longer of any use to the airman from whom they had probably come, and they were certainly much better than the regulation, dried-out, hard leather, hob-nailed ones he had, that only caused blisters and did nothing to ease the discomfort of the front. He also realizes how much they have all changed. They were merely a group of young carefree schoolboys before they came to the front, with little more to worry about than their homework assignments or simple chores around the house, and now the instinct for survival was strong within them and they had somehow lost the innocence of their youth along the way.
The army had taken them at a time in their lives when their minds and souls were vulnerably malleable; when they were just at the point of no longer being children but were not yet adults; when ideals were being formed about life and its meaning; when girls were starting to be looked upon questioningly, and were no longer just considered silly; when thoughts of a career and a family were starting to form; when the influence of their parents was no longer omniscient. In other words, it was a critical time in the lives of those young men, an impressionistic time, and when it should have been filled with love, hope, and optimism, it was instead, filled with death, despair and cynicism.
In ten weeks of basic training, they learned that everything they had been taught in school was basically worthless in the army, that a highly polished button and a proper salute were the things of importance here, not a volume of Schopenhauer or a thoughtful sonnet. They learned that a corporal who had been a postman before the war, now held more authority over them than their parents or teachers ever had. They became calloused and indifferent.
Corporal Himmelstoss, the leader of the 9th platoon, to which the classmates, Paul, Müller, Kroop and Kemmerich, were assigned, was known as the strictest disciplinarian in camp. He took an instant dislike to Paul, Kroop, Tjaden and Westhus, in whom he sensed a quiet defiance, and made their lives miserable by having them repeatedly redo whatever they did and assigning them the hardest and dirtiest tasks in an attempt to break their spirit. But, in the end, all it did was stiffen their resolve and awaken in them their comradeship, traits that would serve them well in combat. The night before they were reassigned to another platoon, they caught Himmelstoss as he was coming out of his favorite saloon, threw a sheet over him and gave him a good beating. He never found out who attack him, and the guys had a good laugh over their prank that night.
Paul goes again to visit his friend Kemmerich, who has since learned that his leg has been amputated. Paul tells him he looks fine and should be going home soon. He whispers to Paul that he doesn’t think so and tells Paul that he can take the airman’s boots with him for Müller. He then begins to cry softly. When his condition worsens, Paul runs to get a doctor, but the doctor tells him he is too busy and sends an orderly with Paul. By the time they return, Kemmerich is dead and the orderly hurries to ready the room for the next patient. Paul leaves the hospital with Kemmerich’s belongings and breathes in the night air deeply. He is severely saddened by his friend’s death but relieved that he lives on. The boots fit Müller just right.
One evening, Paul, Kat and some of the new recruits assigned to 2nd Company go to the front to string barbed wire and are caught in an artillery bombardment. Paul is so tired after stringing the wire, he falls asleep. He awakens disoriented, not knowing where he’s at, seeing only the fireworks of rockets, mortars, and artillery rounds in the darkened sky but is calmed and comforted when he sees his friend Kat quietly smoking a pipe. Kat tells him that it was only near miss that awoke him and not to worry.
Soon after he is comforted by the sight of Kat, Paul comforts a frightened recruit who has messed in his underpants. He doesn’t belittle the recruit, but rather protects him and offers encouragement and support; like a veteran. When the barrage ceases, Kat tells Paul he senses an attack coming.
Kat’s senses were right, as they always were, and as they are getting ready to return to camp, a second heavy barrage drives them to seek cover in a cemetery.
The bombardment is tremendous. Horses are screaming. Some are down and dying. Others are running around dragging their own intestines. The screaming is terrifying. The men can’t stand the screaming of the wounded horses and are yelling for someone to shoot them. Mercifully, the screaming diminishes as each wounded beast is finally put out of its misery.
As they are leaving the graveyard, Paul and Kat come upon a severely injured soldier. His hip has been ripped open by an artillery shell and the hip bone lays exposed, shattered into fragments. It is the recruit that messed his underpants; the one that Paul comforted. They bandage his wounds as best they can but realize that the young soldier has little chance for recovery and will probably die in a few days. He is numb from shock now, but in a few hours he will be in unbearable pain as the shock wears off. They decide to end the young soldiers torment before it begins, by shooting him. They are interrupted by the arrival of other soldiers as they are about to administer the fatal shot. The young man is carried off on a stretcher to the trucks that will take the company back to camp. It is raining as the trucks make their way back to camp and the men monotonously duck their heads as fallen telephone wires pass closely over the top of their open trucks.
“ It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of little recruit with the wound that is much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; if falls in our hearts.”
Corporal Himmelstoss has been assigned to the company, and he arrives he tries to assume the authoritative control of the men he had when he was their leader in training camp. But, the front lines have changed the men and they refuse to obey his order to address him as a superior officer. They feel that his obsession with strict discipline, doctrine and protocol has no place in the trenches of the front; or in the foxholes and shell craters used for cover during artillery shelling; or, amongst the dead and dying, who need solace, not commands.
Tjaden and Kroop are given a few days of open arrest, a light slap on the wrist, by the Company Commander, for their insubordination, and Himmelstoss is given a lecture and a stern warning about his disciplinary tactics.
The men talk about what they will do after the war, with the older men saying they will return to the jobs they had before, while the younger ones are pessimistic about their future, since they didn’t have jobs to return to, or even a life to return to. Albert Kroop sums up their feelings, “The war has ruined us for everything.”
Kat had earlier spotted a farm with geese and Paul and Kat set out to steal a goose. With some difficulty, they manage to catch one of the geese and immediately start roasting it. They are in a small hut and there is aerial bombers overhead as well as the sound of gunfire from the front. Sometimes, a bomb lands nearby and shakes their shelter, but they continue taking turns basting the goose and sleeping. These two men, who would have had little to talk about if they met prior to the war, have developed a spiritual bond that only the hovering reality of death, and the uncertainty of tomorrow, can induce.
“We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.”
The company is reassigned to the front and pass stacks of coffins leaning against a shelled school-house, and jest indifferently about who they are for, knowing full well, they are meant for them. Their indifference comes from feeling they have no control over their fate. Perhaps they will be lucky, and the near miss of an exploding shell will leave them unscathed, or unlucky, and be killed by a stray bullet.
The trenches are in bad shape and overrun with rats, which devour anything edible. The men put scrapes of bread in the middle of their trench at night, and when they hear the scampering of many feet, turn on their flashlights and bludgeon as many rats as they can. It is a hollow victory, a stop-gap measure, for the rats will return again, in equal numbers.
The following days are spent uneventfully, playing cards, tending to their equipment and battling the rats while they await the anticipated invasion. The men are uneasy when given Edamer cheese and served rum, rations they don’t normally get; a foreboding sign of things to come.
After three days of non-stop shelling that left most of the trenches destroyed or badly damaged, the bombardment lifts from the front and concentrates on the rear positions. Bodies and pieces of bodies are scattered everywhere. It hardly seems that anyone could have lived through such destruction. But, as soon as the shelling ceased, heads started to pop up from all around to meet the enemy troop’s assault. The assault is stopped and driven back. Paul, Kat and Haie are running forward like wild animals throwing hand grenades and using their spades and bayonets on the retreating soldiers they catch up to. They finally rest in the enemy trenches they have overrun and enjoy the corned beef they find there- their first meal of meat in weeks. Tjaden also shares the two bottles of cognac he has found.
Birds and butterflies are at the front, going about their daily business amidst the skeletal remains and overturned trees. Paul dreams of a quiet cathedral garden and the peacefulness of his hometown and doubts that he will ever again be able to be a part of the generation of his youth.
“We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial- I believe we are lost.”
During the following days, the front line shifts slightly back and forth as attack and counter-attack follow each other. The dead are stacked in shell holes like cordwood, and as many of the wounded as can be safely retrieved are brought back to their lines. Some are too far away to get and their cries and pleadings for help torment those in the trenches.
The replacement troops are all new recruits, and to Paul, the 19-year-old veteran, they are like little children, these 18-year-old, baby faced innocents. They don’t know when to run for cover or where to find it. They are mown down like sacrificial lambs and whimper for their mothers when no one is watching. Paul and the older men try to teach them, but they seldom remember what they have been taught when the shellings start or the attacks come.
Only thirty-two men, out of the original one hundred and fifty that comprised 2nd company returned from the front. Paul, Kat and Albert Kroop were there but Haie, who was dragged off with a great wound in his back, through which his lung pulsed at every breadth, was not.
The men are given extended leave and Paul returns to his hometown for the first time since he went away to war. He cries when he hears his sister’s voice announcing his arrival to his bedridden mother. The family is not well off and have had little to eat since the start of the war, since most food is rationed. But, Paul’s mother, sick with cancer, has managed to set aside the food he likes, and has cooked him his favorite dish as a homecoming present. Paul is overcome by their sacrifice, and feels guilty that he has only brought his rations and the cheese Kat gave him to offer them.
His father and the local townsmen are talking about the war and the glorious achievements of Paul and the other the ‘young warriors,’ the ‘Iron Youth.’ They talk about the war with little comprehension of its reality, and Paul realizes he will never be able to overcome the great gulf that separates those who have been a part of the horrors of war from those who have not. He visits Kemmerich’s mother who shakes him and asks why he is living and her son dead. She has dreamed that her son died a slow, torturous death and begs Paul to tell her the truth. To relieve her anguish, he lies and swears to her that Kemmerich died instantly.
The only light moment of his leave comes when he visits his old classmate Mittelstaedt who was wounded at the front and given an assignment as commander of a reserve unit nearby. Their former schoolmaster Kantorek has been assigned to Mittelstaedt’s unit and Mittelstaedt uses every opportunity to ridicule the once feared schoolmaster it much the same way that Kantorek ridiculed Paul, Mittelstaedt and their classmates.
On his last night home, Paul’s mother comes to his room and asks if he is afraid. He comforts her and tells her, no. She gives him two pair of woolen underwear that she has made for him to keep him warm. He knows the tremendous hardship she went through to get the wool for the undergarments and is once again filled with remorse. He suddenly understands that there is one person in the world who truly loves him and has a claim on him, his mother. He had forgotten the outside world while instinctively surviving on the front, and the awakening alarms him. He returns to camp in agony over his mother’s illness and his family’s plight.
Paul is assigned to a training camp for four weeks near his hometown, the same training camp they had trained in under Himmelstoss. A part of his duty is to guard Russian prisoners who are housed there. They are meek and frightened and beg for whatever scrapes of food they can get. Many are sick and quite thin from dysentery but there is a brotherly comradeship between them that Paul senses is lacking in the German troops. He is troubled when he considers how the stroke of a pen has made these seemingly friendly peasants his enemy.
Paul’s father and sister visit him the Sunday before he returns to the front and brings with them his favorite dish, jam and potato pancakes his mother has made for him. They tell him that she is dying and they do not have the money to have her looked after properly. That evening, he tries to eat the cakes and jam but is unable to. He gives a few to the Russian prisoners and saves the rest for his friends at the front.
Paul, Kat, Müller, Tjaden and Kroop have all survived and are assigned to a flying division that goes wherever it is most needed. Once at the front they come under heavy artillery fire. Paul is confused and disorientated; the remnants of his leave are still affecting him. He jumps into the nearest shelter, a shell crater, where he is soon joined by another soldier also seeking shelter. The man jumps in head first and rolls to the bottom of the hole. Paul strikes with his knife without thinking and the man lies motionless, a gurgling sound coming from deep within his throat. Paul moves to the far side of the crater and waits for the man to die. The gurgling goes on all night and into the morning. Paul tries to offer some relief to the French soldier he has gravely wounded by bandaging his wounds and offering words of comfort. As he lies in the shell hole and listens to the gurgling, wheezing and whistling sounds of the soldier fighting for breadth, he thinks about the man’s family and how he probably would have lived at least another 30 years if not for him. He asks the unconscious figure for forgiveness. When the French soldier finally dies in the afternoon, Paul looks in his wallet and finds some letters and pictures of a woman and a small child. In a small book he finds the name of the soldier, Gerard Duval, printer, and vows to, one day, somehow, compensate his family for taking his life.
The division returns to camp and Paul, Detering, Kat, Kroop, Müller and Tjaden are all assigned to guard an abandoned village and a stockpile of munitions. While they are evacuating a village, Paul and Kroop are both wounded and sent to the same Catholic hospital. Paul has been wounded in the leg by shrapnel and Kroop’s knee has been shattered by the same shell. While in the hospital they meet Franz Wachter who dies of neglect from a hemorrhaging arm wound and little Peter, said to be the only patient to ever return from the ‘dying room’. Paul undergoes a second operation when the bones of his leg fail to mend properly, and Albert Kroop has his leg amputated, which leaves him despondent and silent.
Kroop more or less accepts his fate and is sent off to institute for artificial limbs and Paul returns home on crutches.
Paul finds his mother’s condition much worse. When he is recalled to his unit, he is more troubled by his visit home this time than he was on the first visit.
Paul is reassigned to his company in the winter and throughout the winter and spring is alternately at the front fighting or in the rear resting. That the Germans are losing the war is apparent to Paul and most of the others. They are sick with dysentery, short of supplies, without food, using worn out weapons, and greatly outnumbered now that the Americans have joined the war. Modern weapons of war are more abundant and they have little defense against the seemingly unlimited French and British tanks or the frightfully effective flame throwers.
Müller was shot point blank in the stomach and lived just long enough to bequeath his fine, soft, leather airman’s boots to Paul, who promises them to Tjaden after him.
Detering goes mad and deserts the company, hoping to return to his farm and family in Germany. He is quickly caught and court-martialed. Nothing more is heard of him.
Late in the summer, Kat is hit; his shin smashed. Paul bravely carries him on his back through enemy fire to a dressing station. He stumbles into the station and gently lowers his friend to the ground and then falls over from exhaustion. He smiles; he has saved his best friend. The medics do a quick examination of Kat and announce that he is dead; hit in the head by a shell splinter. Paul refuses to believe them until his hand comes away bloody as he attempts to revive his friend, whom he believes has only fainted, by rubbing his temples with tea. Paul is stunned and keeps walking in small circles until he faints.
In the autumn, Paul returns to the front alone. He poisoned by gas and returned to the rear for two weeks recuperation, after which he is again returned to the front.
On an October day so quiet that the army confined itself to the single line, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Paul Baümer was killed. His face was calm, almost glad.
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