Most war novels and accounts of war experiences are usually about the glory, adventure and honour associated with the profession of soldiering. This is only to be expected, considering the inherent need of most people to bask in past glory.
Some war literature does dwell on the travails that people face during wartime and in acts of war, so as to highlight positive human traits or to demonstrate how ‘we shall eventually overcome’. A few books, very few in fact, are about the horrors that the frontline soldiers go through. One such timeless antiwar classic is Erich Maria Reargues ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’- a grimly realistic version of a soldier’s experience at war.
Reargue was born in 1898 in Innsbruck, Germany. He was drafted into German army in 1916 to fight in the ‘Great War’ and served on the front, and was badly wounded in action. In the space of the two years between his 18th and 20th years, he had experienced the sort of mind – numbing horrors that lie in wait around the corner in our worst nightmares.
The story is of Paul Baumer, a nineteen year old and his friends. Spurred by patriotic and nationalist ideas, these young men sign up, on the outbreak of hostilities, to fight the French.
Ideals begin to appear meaningless to them as the war progresses, and are soon forgotten as the soldiers come face to face with the brutalities of war, the whittling away of their numbers and the futility of it all. Only thoughts of survival and the means of survival remain meaningful, and in time, the young men become inured to other human emotions. Paul begins to wonder about his own life and whether he will survive not only the war, but also a world without the war.
The end of the novel epitomises the War’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who were forced to fight it.
The overriding theme of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is the terrible brutality of war which suffuses every scene in the novel. All through the book, Reargue portrays war as it was actually experienced, a vision of fear, meaningless and butchery. The novel dramatises these aspects of the War and portrays the mind- numbing terror and savagery with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it causes. These soldiers- these nameless souls who win or lose battles, are occasionally recommended for bravery awards and are promptly forgotten thereafter. They never make the headlines since the outcome of war is far more than the sum of outcome of battles. Thus ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ speaks for all soldiers who had suffered through the war.
Today, we live in relatively peaceful times and hopefully, will never experience such circumstances ourselves. However, the book opens our eyes to what war really means and helps us realize the true value of the sacrifices made by those who have served during times of war.