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World War I was known to be “The war to end all wars,” and also labeled as “The Great War.” It began in 1994, and was fueled by militarism and nationalism throughout Europe. Tensions increased within countries due to strained alliances, and competition to usurp land from colonies was setting the scene for a great conflict that would change the course of history. The European countries chose to align with either the Allies consisting of Great Britain, France, United States, or the Central Powers which were formed mainly by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. On the Western Front, these two sides battled it out in trenches that spanned hundreds of miles. People did not anticipate the war to take as long as it did. False hope, promoting the glory of heroism, political propaganda, and the development of new technologies, caused millions of young men to enter the war. From hand-to-hand combat, poisonous gases, and the firing of machine guns, tens of millions of lives were lost. Erich Maria Remarque became a troubled man after having fought in The Great War himself, and decided to write a novel using his own personal experiences to shed light on the horrors of combat and the tragic effects on the soldiers that fought in the war. In the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, the author utilizes symbolism in order to demonstrate that World War I changed the lives of the surviving soldiers mentally and emotionally, by highlighting how the soldiers mind and spirit are destroyed by the brutal nature of war.
Remarque uses symbolism to reveal the feeling of entrapment that soldiers develop as the war progresses. Paul Baumer, the main character and narrator, takes time to reflect on his experiences in the war during the novel. He shares how “the front is a mysterious whirlpool. Though [he is] in still water far away from the centre, [he] feels] the whirl of the vortex sucking [him] slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself” (Remarque 55). Here, the “whirlpool” represents the great war, one that was historically proven to be one of the most brutal and deadly wars in history. Often, a “vortex” is associated with mass destruction, and the quote reveals how it is affecting life and will always be there. By using the word “sucking” as the action the vortex is doing, Remarque is able to demonstrate the feeling of the soldiers mentally being trapped, or dragged into the conflict, whether or not the young men want to or not. The author is able to reiterate this when he says how the vortex was able to suck him “inescapably into itself”. The symbolism in this quote demonstrates how there is no way for young soldiers to escape the war, and how the war will always be with them. This truly gives an insight into the mind of Paul and the other soldiers. In addition, this sheds light that they have lost all hope and the motivation to fight on, as they describe themselves trapped in a never-ending disaster. Remarque’s use of symbolism evokes a sense of sadness when analyzing the true nature of the war and its widespread negative mental effects on the young soldiers fighting in it.
Another example where symbolism is used by Remarque is how he describes the war dehumanizing the soldiers, with one explosion at a time. Paul was talking to his fellow comrade, making him realize how the war has impacted his well being. Paul reflects how “[They] are not youth any longer. [They]don’t want to take the world by storm. [They] are fleeing. [They] fly from [themselves]. From [their] life…[they] had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in [their] hearts. [They] are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. [They] believe in such things no longer, [they] believe in war” (Remarque 88). The explosions from the bombs causing them to “burst in [their] hearts” symbolizes how not only do these weapons destroy them externally, or physically, but mentally. The “bombs” represent the violence taking place, literally destroying their manhood. When Paul states how they, “fly from [themselves]”, he expresses how he is trapped in the war and violence and is unable to escape his situation and who he has become. Paul concludes by telling how he and the soldiers “believe in such things no longer, [they] only believe in war”, indicating that soldiers are forced to change their attitudes and have become indifferent to what is happening around them. Theoretically, the war has made the soldiers machines, having no way but to believe in the war and the violence that entails. The symbolism of the bombs and the violence that ensues on the battlefield truly gives insight to the reader of a young soldiers mind, and how they lose one of the characteristics of being human: empathy. Whether or not they choose, in their mind they believe that their sole purpose is to kill others, showing the dehumanization of young men in the war. Remarque’s symbolism evokes a sense of bleakness when describing the true nature of war and the mental impacts that the soldiers are forced to undergo.
Even after World War I ended, it continued to affect the countries lifestyle and influenced future troubles to come, including World War II, Holocaust, the Cold War as well as the Great Depression. Often people forget that the soldiers that survived still feel depressed and hopeless after returning from World War I. These young men were robbed of their innocence and their youth. Remarque is able to express the feelings and thoughts of the average soldier by using symbolism. The reader is able understand the massive amount of mental and physical hardships the soldiers endure, and ultimately gain insight into the brutality of the war. The mental health of soldiers is still a concern of our armed forces today. The devastating effects of any war have impacted our soldiers for generations. Though this novel was written in a different age, and for a different war, its message is still relevant to our society. As humans, we should strive to be more understanding to those fighting in combat now and our veterans. To thank them for their service, we must provide them with the support they need to thrive in their lives.
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