All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) was written by Erich Maria Remarque, a European writer. Remarque’s novel was a very intense experience for me. I was horrified by the protagonist’s, Paul Bäumer, vivid experiences while also being completely immersed in the story. Each experience felt honest and unfiltered, with every detail acknowledged regardless of whether it was good or bad. I think this is why reading how Paul slowly succumbed to the hopelessness during World War I was so upsetting. I wanted him to keep fighting even though continuing would hurt him more than giving up.
Hope is a constant theme throughout the story. It drives every character to survive, even though a lot of them do not know exactly what it is they are hoping for. Even when Paul gets these short moments of normality, it usually leaves him feeling even more unhappy. At one point, Paul is on leave and returns to his hometown in Germany where he feels deeply disconnected from his family and past life. He observes that:
“Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless –I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, and for everything that is so comfortless and without end. I ought never to have come on leave.” (p. 185)
Relieving these feelings of discontent, disconnect, and emotional agony caused Paul more pain than if he had stayed on the front lines. He has no way to manage these feelings when he needs to focus on survival at the front, so he hides them and hopes for a future that will not force him to confront the trauma he has experienced. I will probably (hopefully) never be able to fully relate to his experiences, but it is devastating to know that millions of people had to endure these experiences in a senseless war.
The feelings Paul describes appear throughout the book but never lead to anything good. The reason is a simple one: empathy is not welcome in war. If Paul felt empathy for every enemy soldier he had killed, every soldier that he watched be shot, and every soldier who he saw slowly waste away surrounded by death and disease, he would not survive. Even when Paul had to tell the mother of his close friend, Kemmerich, that her son died, he cannot empathize with her. He explains that “When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual.” (p. 181). This explanation is even more devastating when he tries to comfort her by lying and saying that Kemmerich died an instant and painless death. Whenever I think of this scene I think of my mother, and what would happen if I were in this position. I cannot even begin to explain how awful it would be to die away from my family, unable to comfort them or say goodbye.
Erich Maria Remarque wrote these scenes to share what many soldiers experience fighting on every side of the war. The sheer brutality, destruction, damage, and pain conveyed in this book, combined with brief moments of happiness, is what makes Remarque’s words have such a direct message: the pain and horrors of war is shared on both sides of the conflict and outlasts everyone.