Today is the birthday (1898) of Erich Maria Remarque (born Erich Paul Remark), a German author whose best known work is the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, a profoundly moving anti-war story based on his own experiences in the trenches in the First World War. I read it first in my mid-thirties when I had an interest in autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works concerning the first-hand experience of war. What surprised me at the outset was how the same themes recurred: dissociation, alienation, dehumanization etc, no matter what the particular circumstances. I have never read any of his other works even though they were well received in Germany.
Remarque was born on 22 June 1898 into a working class family in the German city of Osnabrück to Peter Franz Remark (b. 14 June 1867, Kaiserswerth) and Anna Maria (née Stallknecht; born 21 November 1871, Katernberg).
During the First World War, Remarque was conscripted into the army at the age of 18. On 12 June 1917, he was transferred to the Western Front, 2nd Company, Reserves, Field Depot of the 2nd Guards Reserve Division at Hem-Lenglet. On 26 June, he was posted to the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment, 2nd Company, Engineer Platoon Bethe, and was stationed between Torhout and Houthulst. On 31 July, he was wounded by shrapnel in the left leg, right arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany where he spent the rest of the war.
In 1927, Remarque wrote the novel Station at the Horizon (Station am Horizont), which was serialized in the sports journal Sport im Bild for which Remarque was working. It was published in book form only in 1998. He wrote his best-known work, All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues), in a few months in 1927, but was not immediately able to find a publisher. A number of similar works followed; in simple, emotive language they described wartime and the postwar years. By the time of the publication of his novel, Arc de Triomphe, he was internationally acclaimed and the book achieved worldwide sales of nearly five million.
All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who—urged on by his school teacher—joins the German army shortly after the start of World War I. His class was “scattered over the platoons amongst Frisian fishermen, peasants, and labourers.” Bäumer arrives at the Western Front with his friends and schoolmates (Tjaden, Müller, Kropp and a number of other characters). There they meet Stanislaus Katczinsky, an older soldier, nicknamed Kat, who becomes Paul’s mentor. While fighting at the front, Bäumer and his comrades have to engage in frequent battles and endure the treacherous and filthy conditions of trench warfare.
At the very beginning of the book Remarque says “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book does not focus on heroic stories of bravery, but rather gives a view of the conditions in which the soldiers find themselves. The monotony between battles, the constant threat of artillery fire and bombardments, the struggle to find food, the lack of training of young recruits (meaning lower chances of survival), and the overarching role of random chance in the lives and deaths of the soldiers are described in stark detail.
The battles have no names and seem to have little overall significance, except for the impending possibility of injury or death for Bäumer and his comrades. Only pitifully small pieces of land are gained, about the size of a football pitch, which are often lost again later. Remarque often refers to the living soldiers as old and dead, emotionally drained and shaken. “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing from ourselves, from our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”
Paul’s visit on leave to his home highlights the cost of the war on his psyche. The town has not changed since he went off to war; however, he finds that he does “not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.” He feels disconnected from most of the townspeople. His father asks him “stupid and distressing” questions about his war experiences, not understanding “that a man cannot talk of such things.” An old schoolmaster lectures him about strategy and advancing to Paris, while insisting that Paul and his friends know only their “own little sector” of the war, but nothing of the big picture.
Indeed, the only person he remains connected to is his dying mother, with whom he shares a tender, yet restrained relationship. The night before he is to return from leave, he stays up with her, exchanging small expressions of love and concern for each other. He thinks to himself, “Ah! Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it.” In the end, he concludes that he “ought never to have come [home] on leave.”
Paul feels glad to be reunited with his comrades. Soon after, he volunteers to go on a patrol and kills a man for the first time in hand-to-hand combat. He watches the man die, in pain for hours. He feels remorse and asks forgiveness from the man’s corpse. He is devastated and later confesses to Kat and Albert, who try to comfort him and reassure him that it is only part of the war. They are then sent on what Paul calls a “good job.” They must guard a supply depot in a village that was evacuated due to being shelled too heavily. During this time, the men are able to adequately feed themselves; unlike the near-starvation conditions in the German trenches. In addition, the men enjoy themselves while living off the spoils from the village and officers’ luxuries from the supply depot (such as fine cigars). While evacuating the villagers (enemy civilians), Paul and Albert are taken by surprise by artillery fired at the civilian convoy and wounded by a shell. On the train back home, Albert takes a turn for the worse and cannot complete the journey, instead being sent off the train to recuperate in a Catholic hospital. Paul uses a combination of bartering and manipulation to stay by Albert’s side. Albert eventually has his leg amputated, while Paul is deemed fit for service and returned to the front.
By now, the war is nearing its end and the German Army is retreating. In despair, Paul watches as his friends fall one by one. It is the death of Kat that eventually makes Paul careless about living. In the final chapter, he comments that peace is coming soon, but he does not see the future as bright and shining with hope. Paul feels that he has no aims left in life and that their generation will be different and misunderstood. When he dies at the end of the novel, the situation report from the frontline states, “All is Quiet on the Western Front,” symbolizing the insignificance of one individual’s death during the war.
It is the utter banality of Paul’s death that is so shocking. By that time he has lost his own sense of humanity and so it is fitting that his life is reduced to a mindless statistic in a mindless war. For decades after publication of the book the expression “all quiet on the Western Front” meant nothing of importance is happening, but now fallen into disuse. My mother used it to mean “all’s right.”
To celebrate Remarque I have chosen a recipe for Birnen, Bohnen und Speck (“pears, beans and bacon”) a North German dish which is especially popular in Lower Saxony where Remarque was born. You need to use very hard cooking pears left unpeeled and with the stems on.
Birnen, Bohnen und Speck
750 g green beans, topped and tailed
500 g cooking pears
400 g bacon, in a slab or sliced
500 g potatoes, peeled and diced
sprig of savory
Place the bacon in a heavy kettle, cover with water, and simmer covered for about 25 minutes.
Add the pears and beans, plus the savory, and continue to simmer covered for another 25 minutes, or until the pears are soft. Keep an eye on the broth to be sure that it reduces, but does not dry out. Add the potatoes and cook so that they are tender but still firm.
Serve one (or two) whole pears per person over the beans, potatoes, and sliced bacon.