This article was published on The South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Can peace ever be other than relative? Its scourge, war, enjoins us to believe so: that there exists an opposing absolute to those things which take place on battlefields. All Quiet on the Western Front, written in 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the First World War, leaves us in some doubt, however – for to his cast of young recruits, peace is as likely to be attained via the grave as it is by armistice.
To them, we discover, peace is unimaginable, unknowable. As the author states in his short introduction, the book tells of “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Spurred to enlist at 18 by a blustering, jingoistic schoolmaster, Paul Bäumer (our narrator) and his friends are “suddenly old at 20”. Their life experience amounts to having heeded the patriotism of their elders; now, brutalised by life at the front, their numbers winnowed down by Allied bombardments, Bäumer observes “we are a wasteland”, and when his own death arrives he is “almost glad the end had come.”
To read Remarque’s novel almost a century after the events it describes, one is struck not only by a devouring sense of pathos – these soldiers are but boys – but also by how, well, unknowable, the entire conflict seems at this remove. How is it even possible that we can reconcile its apparent meaninglessness or grasp its insanity? The so-called “Great War” was one in which men were sent to their deaths in their millions by commanders-in-chief whose own personal safety was never in doubt, in which those who spoke for peace were silenced and which so knocked the stuffing out of the nations embroiled in it that survivors often chose never to speak of it at all.
That being the case, All Quiet on the Western Front is likely to have been anything but an easy read for many of those who made it an instant international best-seller. Its core message is that war and soldiering are not merely wrong but unnecessary, that the sacrifices demanded of combatants are always in vain. The nihilism is clawing, potent, powerful – but then that is how good writing works. Remarque’s book has been held up to generations of us almost as an article of unimpeachable documentary veracity, which is rather a lot to ask of a novel. Does it explain the war to us any better than history books can? No. Does it make it any more knowable? Almost certainly not.
In the Anglophone world Rudyard Kipling’s homily “lest we forget” is given breath every November. It is the dead we remember, of course, but also the horror and the mystery of wars, in the hope that remembering will forestall more of them. And this, above all, is why All Quiet on the Western Front continues to be read: Paul Baumer may not believe much in peace but Remarque makes us desire it nonetheless.