"We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war."
War. It has been a reality for as long as we can remember. Every generation has its conflict, its defining moment. Often times we try to make ourselves feel better by giving war a glorious and patriotic aura, but this does nothing but mask the dirt, the sweat, the tears, and the blood that war is really made of. Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 novel chooses to portray war (namely WWI) for the horror that it really is, and gives us a picture of a generation whose lives are lost to the war, even if they survive the conflict.
It's 1914 and war has come to Europe. 19 year old Paul Baumer is finishing high school when he and many of his classmates are urged by their teacher to join the army and fight for their country. In a moment of patriotic fervor, they rush out and immediately sign up. They soon discover, however, that war is not what their friends, parents, and teachers had described. They are sent to the western front to face the French and English armies. Life at the front is one filled with bombs, dirt, hunger, vermin, blood, loneliness and death.
Slowly but surely, Paul changes from a lighthearted German schoolboy with his whole life ahead of him, to a hardened German soldier whose all consuming thought is surviving the next moment. As he watches his comrades die one by one, Paul realizes that life for him will never be the same. Even if he survives the war, he can never return to the life he had before.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
This is not an easy book to read. In fact, in can be graphic and somewhat disturbing on many levels. But that is exactly what Remarque wanted. He wanted a story that would grab your attention, touch you in the depths of your soul, and give you an experience that you would never forget.
In order to really understand this novel, you have to know a little something about the first World War. Patriotic fervor ran very high in Europe at the outbreak of war. Those who did not immediately sign up and fight for their country were branded as cowards. Most expected this to be a brief war with their side winning within a few months. It was anything but brief. After trench warfare set in on the Western Front, it became a virtual stalemate and both sides used every new piece of technology to their advantage. Tanks, gas, barbed wire, machine guns, grenades, and airplanes were all used for the first time and led to the death of thousands of men every day.
Remarque's characters are very real and it is so hard to watch these brash, simple, kind, and sensitive young men to be blown away (literally) by the war. One theme that Remarque hits on again and again is that their generation is the most affected by the war. Even if they survive, Paul believes, they cannot go on. The older men can go back to the lives and families they have left behind. But for Paul and his friends, there is no going back, neither is there going forward. They have been trained for life on the battlefield, and nothing else. This makes Paul's death at the end somewhat easier for us as the reader.
The other aspect of the novel that really hit me was Remarque's portrayal of those outside the war zone. When Paul goes home on leave, he is faced with friends, neighbors, and family who cannot understand what he is going through. But that does not stop them from giving their opinion. The older men bombard him with what the men should be doing, and asking why they can't break through that line. I mean, how hard could that be? It reminded me of the attitude we all fall into in wartime. We've all got our opinions, but we have no clue. We yell and scream that the boys should come home, or they should press on and finish the fight, but we never stop and ask "the boys" what they think. How can we honestly push our agenda when we have not experienced the horrors that our men and women in uniform have?
Though this is not a novel that will bring pleasure in its story, it is still a very important one. War is a very difficult thing to wrap our minds around, but that is what we must strive to do. I believe that Remarque's novel is ultimately a fervent prayer for us to think long and hard about the true horror of war before we send another generation into its flames.
One can imagine that this novel was just made for the screen. And in fact, it has produced many fine versions of this gut-wrenching story. The most famous is the 1930 version starring Lew Ayres as Paul. This version is very well done (if you don't mind classic Hollywood) and is considered by many to be one of the best war movies ever.
There is also the 1979 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version starring Richard Thomas as Paul and Ernest Borgnine as Kat. I have not yet seen this one, but the clips look pretty good. And finally, 2012 will see the release of a new version reportedly starring Daniel Radcliffe as Paul. After My Boy Jack, Radcliffe should be more than ready for this role.
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