All Quiet on the Western Front is the moving story of one young German soldier during the Great War. Pressured in to signing up by their schoolmasters and parents, full of patriotism and the illusion of the ‘glorious war’, the group of young men are sent off to the trenches. What follows is a truly harrowing account of trench warfare and the disillusionment that ensues.
The irony of those who had encouraged them to sign up while themselves staying at home, continuing to preach the benefits of fighting while Paul Bäumer, our narrator, and his young comrades experience the horrors of war and death is not lost on Paul. This is further emphasized later in the novel when he is on leave and returns home. Everybody he meets seems to spout nonsense about the side of the war they have utterly no concept of, wanting heroic tales or complaining how difficult life is for them. The trip shows how propaganda has given people a very skewed idea of the realities of trench warfare. He finds himself comforting others, lying so as not to upset them.
The visit is jarring for Paul as he feels entirely disconnected from the life he had, unable to relate to the people he’s known his whole life. The sense of being alone, of the only people who truly understand being at the Front, and wanting to go back to them, is strong. A recurring theme throughout is the sense of the lost generation. They were sent off to war before they had become adults, before they had created a life for themselves – what are they to do once the war is over? Will they ever be able to have the kind of life they’d had imagined for them, or will the war have ruined them, forever making them outsiders in a world that can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced?
The idea that they are not treated as humans, as well as having to lose some of their humanity in order to survive trench warfare recurs throughout. It’s a strong reminder that the figures of those who went to war, many not returning, are not just statistics but real lives lost, ruined by horrors that we can barely begin to imagine. There is camaraderie and humour amongst the soldiers but also heart-wrenching scenes where you see how deeply they are being affected. There’s one memorable scene where Paul is stuck in a shell hole with a slowly dying solder from the other side. He experiences horror, desperation, guilt, thoughts of making amends for the killing by looking after the soldier’s family, but then the realisation that this is the way of war, and it could well be him tomorrow. He resolves instead to fight against the forces that made the war, that ruined both their lives, if he makes out it alive. This is a powerful scene as we see the different processes his mind goes through, the ways in which he manages to cope in this nightmare situation.
There’s so much that could be said for this brilliant book, but I’ll just say this; if you read just one book about the Great War, let it be this.