„Im Westen nichts Neues“ was the next-to-last book from the pile of educational reading put together as my last year’s birthday present from my sister. It is the shortest of the pile – and the most terrible one.
The author, Erich Maria Remarque, gives an account of a simple soldier’s experience in WWI – an account that is sobering as well as sober. Even the most dramatic and horrible scenes are presented in a very down-to-earth, undramatic manner; there is nothing “loud” about the book, which makes the desperate fight for survival appear even more poignant.
The main character is Paul, a young soldier who heads directly from the class room to the battlefield at age 18, along with his class mates, originally instigated by the patriotic speeches of their teacher.
As soon as the boys (they can hardly be called young men at that stage) arrive at their barracks for military training, it becomes obvious that everything they thought important so far, everything they learned at school and in their respective families, has no value anymore.
The reader follows Paul as he turns into a soldier, fights in the trenches, always desperate for food, clean water and a place to rest, forms friendships and loses his old class mates one by one on the battlefields, escapes death narrowly more than once, and thinks about his life in the context of the whole “lost generation” of young men who have not had time to grow roots in their civil lives before they are destroyed forever by the war, even when they escaped its grenades.
One chapter describes a two-week leave Paul uses to visit his family. He soon realizes that he can’t simply slip back into his former life; he isn’t the same person anymore, and feels unable to talk about what is really going on out there, where the war actually happens. For me, this was maybe the saddest chapter of them all: The life Paul once knew and enjoyed is so close, and yet unreachable.
The first time this book was made into a film was in 1930. “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Lewis Milestone won the Academy Award for “Best Film” that year. In 1983, Elton John wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front”, an anti-war song referring to the film.
Interestingly, the author himself never claimed his book to be political. In the foreword, he says that he wanted to tell of the Lost Generation (a term coined by Hemingway).
The Nazis were not at all happy about the book (first published in 1928) – to them, this was anti-war propaganda, and just like the author deserved to be libeled, the book deserved to be burnt.
It was widely thought for some time that Remarque based the book mainly on his own experience in the war. In fact, though, he fought in the trenches “only” for a few weeks (and not years, like Paul in the book) before he was wounded and ended up in a field hospital, where he wrote down what other soldiers told him. So Paul's experience is very much a collective experience, shared by countelss men during those dreadful years.
This was a sad and terrible read, but as strange as this may sound, a very good read, too (and what a contrast to the one I read and reviewed before this one!). I think this book is important to know, and I am glad my sister included it in the pile.