1929 Little, Brown and Company
First published Im Westen Nichts Neues, 1928, Ullstein A.G.
Due to some serious lack in my schooling or self-education, and in spite of being familiar with the title, I had never read All Quiet on the Western Front. I put it on my list of books to read when listening to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech where he says that after reading it, he never wanted to read another war novel.
This summer while visiting relatives, I found a copy sitting on my niece Ellie’s shelf. On the cover it says "The Greatest War Novel of All Time". I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it is certainly a great novel, about war.
Profoundly truthful and distressingly nostalgic, the novel tells of the horror of war and its senselessness, and of the beauty of life, forever changed.
Author’s opening note :
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 shells, were destroyed by the war.
The narrator is Paul, a 20-year-old boy who, with several of his former classmates, is sent to the front as a soldier. The passages about warfare and death, I leave you to discover directly on your own. They stand alone in their intensity.
Following are some passages I marked which, although set in the midst of death and inescapably melancholic, are about life.
The room is dark. I hear my mother’s breathing, and the ticking of the clock(1). Outside the window the wind blows and the chestnut trees rustle.
This recalls the universal nostalgia of time passing which becomes tragic for the young soldier.
Paul observes the miraculous nature of the world, during a combat practice drill where he is lying face down in the sand:
Looked at so closely one sees the fine sand is composed of millions of the tiniest pebbles(2), as clear as if they had been made in a laboratory. It is strangely inviting to dig one’s hands into it.
Some passages are unbearably beautiful, given the context of the war. One night Paul is guarding a prisoner of war camp where the prisoners are starving:
I take out my cigarettes, break each one in half and give them to the Russians. They bow to me and then light the cigarettes. Now red points glow in every face. They comfort me ; it looks as though there were little windows in dark village cottages saying that behind them are rooms full of peace.
During an inspection for which they are given new uniforms to impress the Kaiser, Paul and his fellow soldiers discuss the reasons for war :
"…what I would like to know…is whether there would not have been a war if the Kaiser had said No."
"I’m sure there would… he was against it from the first."
"Well, if not him alone, then perhaps if twenty or thirty people in the world had said No."(3)
"That’s probable…but they damned well said Yes."
"…almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were."
"There must be some people to whom the war is useful."
"…every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous…"
"And generals too…they become famous through war."
"There are other people…who profit by the war, that’s certain…"
"I think it is more of a kind of fever…No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn’t want the war, the others say the same thing—and yet half the world is in it all the same."
And at the end of the inspection day Paul says, "To make matters worse, we have to return almost all the new things and take back our old rags again. The good ones were merely for the inspection."
A hospital shows what war is :
A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
A lime (linden) tree, a cherry tree and Home:
On temporary leave, Paul sees a lime tree (4) which represents his youth and the home he left behind:
There stands the old, square watch-tower, in front of it the great mottled lime tree and behind it the evening.
Here we have often sat – how long ago it is – we have passed over this bridge and breathed the cool acid smell of the stagnant water on this side of the lock…and on hot days we rejoiced in the spouting foam on the other side of the lock and told tales about our school-teachers.
Coming back one morning from the front line, one of the soldiers is reminded of his home when he sees a cherry tree in a garden.
His misfortune was that he saw a cherry tree in a garden. We were just coming back from the front line, and at a turning of the road near our billets, marvellous in the morning twilight, stood this cherry tree before us. It had no leaves, but was one white mass of blossom...
The soldier says,
"I have a big orchard with cherry trees at home. When they are in blossom, from the hay loft they look like one single sheet, so white. It is just the time."
Unable to withstand the longing, he deserts his post, and runs away toward his farm in Germany, only to be stopped by the military police and never heard from again.
Nothing New to Report:
When the book ends, we are told that all is quiet on the Western front. Or in the original German, there is "nothing new to report from the Western front".
Note : the title of the book in German reads: In the West, Nothing New. The French title retains this reading, A l’Ouest, rien de nouveau.
Here is an interesting exchange from a student who read this book for class, and a teacher (first two comments) :
1 « The ticking of the clock »…made me think of Bob Dylan’s song, A Simple Twist of Fate.
2 Here I thought of another Bob Dylan song, Every Grain of Sand
3 Could we avoid war if enough people said no ?
4 The lime tree brought directly to my mind Schubert’s Lieder number 5 from his Wintereisse (Winter Journey) song cycle. It has a beautiful nostalgic melody, which expresses the song’s woeful tale of passing time. In it a traveler seeks shade and peace amidst his futile dreams of regaining the past. I play it on the piano. Then I think of the French book and film about World War II, The Silence of the Sea (5), where a German soldier who cannot reconcile the beauty of German music and art with the horrors of its war actions, intentionally returns to the front to die.
5 Le Silence de la Mer de Vercors, 1942, Editions de Minuit (published secretly).
Films, same title : Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949 ; Pierre Boutron, 2004