Sentiment as a Means of Exploration: A Reaction to Criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front

Kristofer Barr

Professor Celia Marshik

English 491

27 March 2015

Sentiment as a Means of Exploration: A Reaction to Criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front

            One-hundred and one years have passed since the beginning of the First World War or, as it was once more aptly and, on the other hand, more horribly and inaccurately titled, the Great War. It has thus become a war rather easy to escape from. Its veterans are dead. For the most part, the sons and daughters of those veterans are, too, dead. Its memory lives on instead within monuments, museums and textbooks, not so much dead as depersonalized. No, it’s not forgotten, yet with no great degree of certainty could the memory of the Great War be called alive. As happens to most history, the passions and sorrows and tragedies become muted in the backdrop of greater historical context. Yet Erich Maria Remarque’s famous work of war fiction, All Quiet on the Western Front stands almost immutable and immortal in the annals of literature, popularizing supposedly without political or personal motive on its writer’s part, the beating hearts of the men who were marginalized and forgotten by an uncomprehending society.

These sentiments begin before the novel has even started. The epigraph of All Quiet outlines Remarque’s apparent objective, stating outright that All Quiet was “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.” His scope expands supposedly to all soldiers, not just those featured in the book, for Remarque sought not to tell just one story, but instead tell the one true story “of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” Yet as popular and influential as the book has been, history marches forward inexorably, and with the hindsight of fading memory comes new perspectives, some enlightened, but some tainted with more than just a smidgeon of cynicism. Criticism, modern or otherwise, has remarked upon Remarque’s factual mistakes, personal history, and anecdotal and fictionalized representation of the Great War, culminating in the opinion that Remarque’s writings consist of little more than popularized opinions. The views of critics such as Modris Eksteins hold that Remarque’s novel might have had ultimately given rise to, at best, unrest and undirected discontentment towards the powers that be and, at worst, fascistic principles that would lead the world again, years later, to ruination. While, as history and hindsight illustrates that Remarque’s claims towards total impartiality may have been greater aggrandizement than actual fact, history, as utilized by some modern critics, has blinded them to the true meaning and power behind All Quiet on the Western Front. It is the power of this story to transcend political and national boundaries, to portray to the post-war audience not the aggrandizement of a single individual’s suffering, but the untold suffering of the unknown dead and lost.

This was a power great enough to shake the ground of world frozen in war-weary hibernation and willful ignorance, a point which Modris Eksteins in his 1980 essay, “All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War” finds to be an unfortunately pivotal event. For modern critics such as Modris Eksteins, this popularity was itself a tragedy that only enflamed a post-war German populace eager for reconciliation and explanation for their meager, helpless position a decade after the Great War. Eksteins rejected the notions espoused by other critics that All Quiet represented any kind of “truth” about the war (355), asserting that the kind of prevalence that gave All Quiet such immense acclaim was the same power that brought the world to turmoil a decade after the war’s end. Prior to Remarque, a desire to truly feel the effects of the front had not manifested. The period following the Great War’s end saw very little literature about the war published. Eksteins posits that the lack of literature could be attributed to a kind of “nervousness” concerning the war, as if the discussion of the war’s presence might be too painful to reemerge in the public conscience or was considered too awful a subject to wallow in (346). That was until the advent of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Where previously the world seemed content in leaving the war buried, the wave of controversy sparked by All Quiet allowed for its scarred head to be exhumed for all to see, a fact which Eksteins describes as a catalyst for irrationality and fear to reign. Eksteins places this blame not just on the explosive content of All Quiet but on what the book represented, for what it allowed the people of the post-war world to feel. Regarding All Quiet as a non-objective exploration into naught but overly sympathetic melancholy, Eksteins fails to grasp the emotional meaning inherent to the book itself.

In fact, the emotionality, intrinsic to All Quiet’s message, cannot be dismissed as a pathetic ploy, for it portrays an sentiment that might be otherwise forgotten amidst the death throes of sixteen-million anonymous histories. Represented by the German soldier, Paul Bäumer and his friends the soldiers of the Great War are whittled down to nothing, yet Remarque truly mourns for his characters. As Kemmerich, the first of Paul’s friends to die in the course of the novel, expires miserably, Paul is overcome with the enormity of what it means to truly be alive, describing how “The night lives, I live. I feel a hunger, greater than comes from the belly alone” (34).  When later Paul is forced to have to explain to Kemmerich’s mother his death, his manner has instead become detached, evolving into a disdain for life. “When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual” (157), he says. The dichotomy between life and death is not glanced over. Life’s bitter sweetness and death’s cold release are given their proper dues, their normal associations, good and bad, but are then twisted by the Great War. Paul’s supposed death at the very end of the novel takes this final demise as a release, a final freedom from his waking death. Eksteins proclaims that Remarque did not focus on the war objectively, but projected only “postwar political and emotional investments” (357), rejecting the literary effect it may have had on its audience. He harps on its emotionality, saying that it conducted itself “stridently” (352), as if, instead of speaking to the soul, all that All Quiet can do is shout into the void. The novel, however, does not obscure its characters fragile humanity to evoke an objective sense of war. The emotional connection it maintains with its characters instead portrays a side of humanity illustratably quenched by the war. The descent into the pits of death and madness at the front for Paul Bäumer and his school-age friends resonated with audiences too through the contrast between extreme dehumanization and sublimely simple human connections.

In All Quiet Remarque captured a sentiment irresistible to even a war-weary world and gave voice to the silenced passions of those soldiers at the front line mulched into an unremarkable and unremembered landscape. For even the “generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war,” so too does All Quiet allow them rest. In All Quiet, there is a quiet, beauteous solemnity paid to his Paul’s friendships. His relationship to Kat, most of all, symbolizes a communion of the soldier’s lost souls. “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” (85). Paul is portrayed as an innocent creature, to be sentimentalized, surely, but also to be understood, not as an adult but as a child. Paul stares at a picture of a lovely woman in one scene, absurdly embarrassed only then by his miserable hygiene. Even the sexual encounters he has in the story are awkward affairs, never totally reaching beyond boyish lust. While Eksteins disparages Remarque for formulating a novel that so easily preys upon the unstable emotionality of its audience for effect, these moments of simple beauty suggest a shared community inherent to humanity but lost through the war. As critic Joseph Tighe puts it, “We may ‘live the experience of war by living it through Paul’s story; thereby, we may come to understand war itself as a threat to our most basic hold on the world” (56). The war is a dehumanizing force, transforming once endearing boys into demons. “We have lost all feeling for one another,” says Paul. “We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill” (102). In All Quiet, the war’s course never comes to an end, and as the depersonalization takes root, it comes to eventually consume Paul.

In the end, Paul dies alone, without friends, anonymous. Through Paul Bäumer, Remarque created an archetype for the common, unnamed soldier. Eksteins wrote that, of the books published around the time of All Quiet’s publication, “almost all were written from the point of view of the individual, not the unit or the nation.” He despairs of how All Quiet “personalized for everyone the fate of the ‘unknown soldier’. Paul Bäumer became the individual everyman.” (358). Yet the finale of All Quiet is written in the third person, stating “he fell in October 1918” (248), but one month from the end of the war. He falls as if “sleeping,” “glad the end had come.” This final haunting statement serves to encompass the dead, every one regardless of nationality or date of death, of pointless horrific struggle where death may be the only release. This itself is no ideology and no belief system, but a eulogy opposing the nationalistic ideology that led to the Great War. “While All Quiet is indeed ideologically self aware,” writes Joseph Tighe, “this is not a ground for calling it ‘unphilosophical” (53). He calls All Quiet a critique of ideology. “Conversely, intellectualist criticism seeks a universal account of War, looking for, and usually not finding the ‘form’ of War evidenced in the account,” he says in response to differing theories of interpretation. “Besides taking for granted that a universal account of war is even possible, intellectualism refuses any one account of War as true because it cannot resolve the consequent ambiguity of having to accept all accounts as true” (52). Like these intellectualists mentioned by Tighe, Eksteins rejects every part of All Quiet as a true representation of the war, taking it instead as an account of post-war mania (357). Every one of Paul’s experiences at the front, as he slowly loses each and every one of his friends, are taken not from the perspective of the war itself but from reactions to it ten years later.

Though ostensibly, even according to Remarque’s own epigraph, All Quiet seeks not to make any definitive statement beyond its narrow focus on the plight of its soldiers, the actual content of the novel creates an accusation. The book commonly proposes the plight of the average soldier, none of whom hold any malice towards their enemy. The characters in All Quiet propose a different means for the war to be fought, an arena for the generals and national leaders to fight it out. “Whoever survives,” the soldier Kropp says, “his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting” (41). The argument is childish, infantile, though intentionally so. The simplicity of the argument adds to the irrefutability of it, heightening, in spite of Remarque’s remissness to do so, his universal accusation.  Remarque accuses the men in charge of the war, not just the German military leaders but leadership in general. Remarque accuses his countrymen who fell under the spell of nationalistic fervor, with characters like Kantorek, the boy’s schoolteacher who convinces his class to sign up and who is thus reviled by the boys he sent to die. They were children, “still crammed with vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also, an ideal and almost romantic character” (Remarque 25) and did not deserve to die. And indeed, All Quiet is a sort of confession, for this book, although fictional, pertains to the gross discomfort contained within Remarque and embodied by his characters. Remarque is not impartial. Eksteins calls Remarque’s confession a “confession of personal despair” (351). He proposes the notion that All Quiet had become a “putrid manifestation of the malaise which had engulfed the postwar world” (361) simply because it presented a narrative of the Great War that challenged the status of those entities that plunged the world into war. Eksteins ultimately lays the blame of millions of lives lost in the second world war, neither on the machines of war that created them, nor on the conditions at the end of the Great War, but on the hands of Remarque whose accusations, according to Eksteins, incited unrest exploited by the Nazi party. Yet if All Quiet is indeed a confession, it is a confession of deeply seated insecurities on the world’s horrid makeup.

Eksteins never truly analyzes All Quiet. He instead casts blame on it. “All Quiet promoted at a popular level what historical revisionism was achieving at an academic and political level: the erosion of the idea of a collective German war guilt” (361). He first blames Germany for the Great War, an ugly proposition itself. Because Remarque portrays his characters as members of an international community of sacrificed, innocent men, Eksteins sees a means for criticism. Remarque’s emotionality and sentimentality did not provoke fascist ideals, but fought against them, not in spite of sentimentality, but because of sentimentality.   As Paul Bäumer lies face-to-face with the man he murdered but had no choice in, he tries everything in his power to comfort him, saying to the Frenchman dead next to him, “you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind… We always see it too late.” Paul’s love for this stranger, his misery at having to kill the creature so close symbolizes the community of children and people forced to murder each other, regardless of state lines and never does Remarque make bloodshed and chaos to be good alternatives to sentimentality and pacifism.

Yet Eksteins ignores that. He ultimately proclaims, “ironically, it thus contributed to a mood which Hitler… was able to exploit” (349). Although Eksteins states outright the book was burned for its unflattering depictions of the front, he yet believes All Quiet culpable as a destabilizing factor. Yet if Remarque does utilize a philosophy, it is one that admonishes those with absolute control and bemoans the fate of those who have none, never promoting a fascistic tolerance for absolutism. Eksteins makes the mistake in thinking that a broader picture necessarily comprises a better one. Tighe remarks that, “in Remarque’s novel we begin to perceive the world at its most basic and primary, as it exists for the self unencumbered by the trappings of science, belief or the other intentionalities of act which cloud our primordial existence.” (56). Tighe speaks of the rawness and earth-bound carnage in All Quiet. The raw emotion of the story itself on the personal level, and, to Eksteins’ chagrin, not on the political one. Although a political message may very well exist, the pathos of the story resides in the mourning of the individual soldier, the collective unmarked graves of the millions who perished and the very idea of a human community.

All Quiet may thus consist of a political commentary. Condemnations exist and are utilized, but it is never portrayed as fantasy, and most importantly, never as an adventure. It was never meant as a history, because history blinds and obfuscates in its powers of remote observation. The story does indeed fail at being impartial, and such a remark by the author serves more as an advertising method than the novel’s true purpose, but the story of Paul and company could never be impartial, for the Great War itself, in spite of Eksteins’ desire for an objective understanding of the war, was neither impartial nor objective. The Great War, simultaneously an accurate and inaccurate title, was indeed great in its scope and its theatres of war, but in a sense it was a war made smaller and more personal than any other in history. The lives it touched and twisted were made irrevocably changed. For those who faced it, it was, indeed, not an adventure. And though, even after a decade since the Great War’s end, the war seemed inescapable for those whose lives were destroyed by the war, even after escaping its shells. For whatever truths were presented in All Quiet on the Western Front, they were, unlike the war’s history, made impossible to escape from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Eksteins, Modris. “‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ And The Fate Of The War.” Journal Of Contemporary History 15.2 (1980): 345-366. Historical Abstracts. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Remarque, Erich M. All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. New York: Little, Brown, 1956. Print.

Tighe, Joseph A. “All Quiet On The Western Front: A Phenomenological Investigation Of War.” Critical Survey 16.3 (2004): 48-61. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

 

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