I was planning to read more for one of my favourite annual reading challenges, namely the German Literature Month, but the Young Writer of the Year Award reading took priority this time round. Besides, even though it was a reread, Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is not a book to be read in a rush. I obviously had a stronger constitution as a teenager, as this time nearly every chapter left me in tatters and I needed a day to recover before attempting the next.
The book is based partly on own experience (although Remarque was only very briefly on the front) and mostly on eyewitness accounts. The First World War has been dragging on for several years now. The ‘Hurrah- patriotismus’ fervour and speeches of their schoolmaster Kantorek, which made the four friends and schoolboys join the army in 1914, has turned to disillusionment and ashes. The frontline seems to be stagnating, as they fight over the same piece of land over and over again, fruitlessly. There is no glory, no heroism here, just endless drudgery and pain. The young soldiers know nothing else but despair, death and fear. The narrator, Paul, paints the contrast between those espousing the necessity of war and the virtues of the Fatherland with those who actually experience the futility of it.
While they wrote and talked about it, we saw the military hospitals and the dying; while they talked up one’s duty to the state, we knew that fear of death trumped it. We didn’t become rebels, deserters, cowards – all those terms that they bandied about so easily – we loved our home just as much as they did, and we advanced courageously at every attack. But we were now able to distinguish between the two, we had learnt to see. And we could see that there was nothing left of their world. We were suddenly left all on our own – and we had to deal with it on our own.
Little wonder that this book was banned when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, as it goes against all of the ideology that they espoused. But it wasn’t just them who objected to this book – quite a few other German readers were concerned that it didn’t portray their country (or its military doctors and nurses) in a good light, that it was badly written, sensationalist, piling on horror upon horror merely to further the author’s pacifist agenda.
I personally found the style often dry and matter of fact, rather than melodramatic, but the simple factual description of some scenes makes them truly horrific and unforgettable – both visually and auditively. There is the constant booming of gunfire, the whistle of grenades, of course, but there is also the crying of the wounded and, in one particularly gruesome scene that I had somehow managed to suppress from my earlier reading, the agonised groaning and whinnying of wounded horses.
Another vivid scene is when they head off to the frontline and on the road they see piles upon piles of freshly-made coffins, with the smell of resin and forest still upon them. The soldiers joke about them, but they are in fact intended for them: heavy casualties are expected. The narrator says drily:
The coffins are indeed for us. In such matters, the army is very organised.
This contrasts with the lack of food and boots (one pair of boots gets inherited from one member of the platoon to another when their owner dies).
What Remarque manages to convey so well is how war has damaged these young men beyond redemption: they are numbed, they have become dehumanised, they don’t fight – they are cornered beasts, merely defending themselves from being annihilated. They have lost the connection with their home and family. When Paul goes briefly home on sick leave, he struggles to explain his experience, he doesn’t want to talk about the war, and he realises that he no longer belongs in his quiet town. Although he is glad to see his dying mother again, his conclusion is that it’s best not to go home from the front. There is a refrain of ‘What will become of us now, even if the war ends?’ that is typical of a lost generation, regardless of which side of the war they were fighting on.
Another reason for the delay in reviewing this book, which I appropriately enough finished on the 11th of November, is that I wanted to compare it with the reread of another favourite war book, this time about a lesser-known front during the First World War, the Eastern Front, as described in The Forest of the Hanged (Pădurea Spânzuraţilor) by Liviu Rebreanu. This was published in 1922, even earlier than Remarque’s novel (published in 1929), and likewise shows the pointlessness of war and the psychological damage it wreaks on participants. Interestingly, enough, it too is written from the point of view of what one might call ‘the baddies’ or the ‘wrong side’ and it too has been accused of bad writing, not so much melodrama but for having a style that is too dry, too banal. I wonder if in this case it is a bit of a cultural dig towards the Transylvanians, who had just united with the ‘Kingdom of Romania’ after 1918. The Transylvanians are renowned for being less verbose, more phlegmatic and colder than the rest of the Romanians from other parts of the country (as well as more organised, more disciplined and more Westernised – too German, in other words, make of that what you will!).
Liviu Rebreanu’s book is an account of Apostol Bologa’s internal journey from blithely joining the Austro-Hungarian army as an ethnic Romanian living in Transylvania (which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to becoming a tormented soul, disenchanted by war, who decides to desert and is condemned to death as a traitor. Bologa’s moral dilemma is all the greater because he is actually not fighting for his fatherland. The ethnic Romanians were often oppressed by their Hungarian overlords and his own father had been one of a group of militants for equal rights. Yet Apostol joined the army mostly to impress his girlfriend Martha. His mother and the local priest are frankly horrified when he tells them he has joined up. ‘You are going to fight for the Hungarians, who beat us up? This is not our fatherland. When you have a “fatherland” like ours, you are not at all obliged to step up to do your duty, on the contrary!’
Nevertheless, Apostol does his duty, somewhat grumpily, having to endure some needling from his fellow officers. His first moment of doubt comes after witnessing the execution by hanging of a Czech officer who had been caught while trying to run away. Apostol initially brands him a traitor and shows little understanding or mercy, but after a conversation with his superior office, Klapka, also a Czech, who describes a forest of the hanged which he encountered on the Italian front, a tiny crack appears in his facade.
And then the bad news comes: their regiment will be moved to the Romanian front. Romania was on the side of the Entente powers during World War One. In other words, Apostol will have to fight against his own ethnic group. He begs to be sent to another frontline, he even attempts to cover himself in medals and glory to impress the Hungarian general and be excused from fighting in Romania. But to no avail. So, for the rest of the book, we witness partly the absurdities and ruthlessness of war, but above all a man’s inner turmoil, a fight between mental deterioration and a struggle for forgiveness and salvation. Unlike Paul in Remarque’s work, Apostol does find connection with other human beings (interestingly, he falls in love with Ilona, an ethnic Hungarian, showing that it’s not about ethnic animosity, but about the hollowness of nationalistic discourse). There are touches of religious mysticism which some modern readers may find old-fashioned, but remind me of Dostoevsky.
As is the case with Remarque, Rebreanu did not personally experience the war, although he was briefly in the Hungarian army in 1906, but he left both the army and Transylvania and settled in Romania in 1909, working as a journalist and novelist. However, his brother Emil faced precisely the dilemma he describes in this novel. Emil was executed for desertion in 1917, but his family only found out after the end of the war. Of course, the author was profoundly shocked and influenced by this personal tragedy, but he explained that the novel was not his brother’s story, but rather the story of an entire generation.
Update: For those showing an interest in the Romanian novel, there is an English language translation (I cannot find the name of the translator) from Casemate Publishers, which is a publisher of mostly military history. There is also a film adaptation from 1965 directed by Liviu Ciulei, which won the Best Director Prize in Cannes that year.