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Title: A Universal Loss of Innocence: Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”
Author: Katherine Perry
Written: January 23, 2009
Paul Bäumer lives in a world where killing is the only way to live, memories are as foreign as the enemy himself, and a single bombardment can age a man fifty years. He lives in a world of ceaseless violence and tragedy and yet he is numb — too estranged from his past to seek solace in recollections of his youth and too hopeless to fathom the possibility of escaping the hellish reality of his present. Paul Bäumer is lost, but he is not alone. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front is a harrowing account of the human face of war and the poignant psychological wounds that inflict an entire generation. Remarque’s novel tells of a universal loss of innocence that left an entire demographic estranged, dehumanized, and disillusioned.
In the novel, Remarque describes a core of men who know how to play cards, swear and fight – something he says is “not much for twenty years — and yet too much for twenty years” (89). When Paul and his comrades joined the army they were mere teenagers, unaware that the war would strip them completely of their youth. “We are none of us more than twenty years old,” he says. “But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk” (18). The “damnable business” of war, as Paul puts it, has completely estranged him from his past. Memories function only as “soundless apparitions” that cannot be relived or fully comprehended. “They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us,” he explains (121).
This sentiment comes to the forefront when Paul is granted a two-week leave from the battleground. Home among all that is native to him, he feels alienated and alone. Remarque writes:
“We [soldiers] could never again regain the old intimacy with these scenes. It was not any recognition of their beauty and their significance that attracted us, but the communion, the feeling of comradeship with the things and events of our existence, which cuts us off and made the world of our parents a thing incomprehensible to us…” (122).
When Paul puts on his civilian clothes, he feels “awkward.” When he looks into his mother’s eyes or scans the volumes of books on his bedroom shelf, a “sense of strangeness” and a “terrible feeling of foreignness” come over him. “I cannot feel at home among these things,” he says. “There is a distance, a veil between us” (160).
The distance Paul speaks of also describes the generational divide between soldiers his age and those who have already carved out adult existences prior to the war. The older generation’s background is “so strong that the war cannot obliterate it” (20). Paul and his former classmates differ in that they have no adult lives to which they can return. They have no occupations, no wives, no foundation on which to rebuild their lives. “We had yet taken no root,” he explains. “The war swept us away” (20). For the thousands of men who transitioned from the classroom to the battleground, the post-war era presented an insurmountable identity crisis.
Estranged from past and future, Paul desperately holds on to the present: “I am a solider, I must cling to that.” (173). But being a solider does not provide a true identity. Instead, the subsequent dehumanization only erodes his generation’s sense of self even more.
“The column marches on, straight ahead, the figures resolve themselves into a block, individuals are no longer recognizable, the dark wedge presses onward, fantastically topped by the heads and weapons floating on the milky pool. A column – not men at all.” (57)
The essence of a solider is that he must represent the antithesis of an individual. He must obey command and act in accordance of the group. Yet, as Paul soon learns, the calm and orderly image of a marching column falls apart amid the chaos of battle. Every man must fend for himself. He must kill to live. This primal necessity of warfare brings out the beast in each soldier. “We march up, moody or good tempered soldiers,” says Paul. “We reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals” (56). Paul refers to this transformation as “seeing red”, and the dehumanization that renders the soldiers “hardly distinguishable from Bushmen” (274) causes Paul and his comrades to reconsider the meaning of the war to which they have given their lives.
“The idea of authority, which [the leadership] represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more human wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief.” (12)
The reality of war transforms the soldiers’ faith in their leaders into a marked disillusionment. At one point Paul and his comrades ponder the reason for the war. One soldier suggests a new type of warfare that would pit a few representatives from each country against each other in battle, so as to spare the mass bloodshed like that they have seen thus far. They agree that their reason for killing is quite arbitrary. “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies, a word of command might transform them into our friends.” (193) To Paul and his comrades, the war is a senseless force. There is no grand plan – luck is all that determines a man’s survival or death.
“It might easily have happened that we should not be sitting here on our boxes today; it came damn near to that. And so everything is new and brave, red poppies and good food, cigarettes and summer breeze.” (10)
Paul quickly realizes that each day he lives marks another narrow escape from death. “It is just a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit,” he says after one especially violent bombardment (101). The daily brushes with death wear on the young soldiers. They soon (in Paul’s words) become hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, and tough – more than anything; however, they become disillusioned. “The war has ruined for us everything,” says Albert (87). For them, the past holds no comfort and the future holds no hope. Using Paul as his mouthpiece, Remarque beautifully describes the essence of this newly “lost” generation:
We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial — I believe we are lost (123).
Remarque’s commentary on the human face of war transcends boundaries of time and space. His philosophies and his conclusions, though specific to World War I, are universal in meaning. The “common fate” of Paul’s generation is indeed the common fate of all generations who experience the vile reality of war at such a malleable age. The shells and bullets irreparably destroy both memory and hope, creating wounds that cannot be seen but are perhaps felt deeper than any other.
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