23 July 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front

I wrote this paper my very last semester at Covenant College. It was for Dr. Morton's Twentieth Century World History class, and it was supposed to talk about the theme of nationalism in Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front." He had probably read about a dozen of these papers, but I was actually kind of proud of how mine turned out.


Nationalism and the Generation Gap
“At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim.”[1] This quote from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front sums up the problem of the disconnect between the ideological nationalism pushed by the older generation and the practical nationalism being carried out by the younger generation seen throughout the rest of the book. This is a complex story of recognizing a difference between the older generation’s idealism and what war really is; of love of country despite the realization that you alone know the horrors of all that entails; and of hatred of war yet love of camaraderie.
All Quiet on the Western Front is told in first person narrative from the perspective of Paul Bäumer, a young man of twenty, and his friends and schoolmates around the same age, caught up in a war planned out for them by their fathers. All they know is that they love their country and their fellow man, but they hate the war that decides whom they are to love and whom they are to kill. The first instance of tension between the generations is when Bäumer is thinking back on his old schoolteacher Kantorek. “The teachers,” he says, “always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by the hour.” There is a feeling of shared disconnect among his schoolfellows who signed up under the pressure of the man they trusted and looked up to. “For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty of culture, of progress – to the future…The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief.”[2] There is some amount of bitterness directed at Kantorek for pushing Joseph Behm, the only one among his schoolmates who took the longest to persuade to go into the war. Most of them were ready to go, not necessarily because they believed in the cause, but because their parent’s generation believed in the cause and had convinced them that it was the cause to believe in.
The older generation embodied in Bäumer’s schoolmaster, Kantorek, his father, and his father’s friends adhere to a sense of nationalism and duty to Germany. They honestly believe that they understand what war is like by mere observation. Bäumer finds them wrapped up in a pride that he can no longer connect to. “Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but on can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.”[3] One of the most stark examples of this kind of philosopher soldier is an older man Bäumer is talking to on his leave. After being asked what he thinks about the possibility of a break through Bäumer replies that he doesn’t think it is possible. “He dismisses the idea loftily,” Bäumer says, “and informs me that I know nothing about it. ‘The details, yes,’ says he, ‘but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge.’”[4]
This disconnect does not always play out into a type of resentment. These young men seem to merely take it for granted that they know better about the complexities of war than the generation before them. “We were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards…We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.”[5] There is a strange sense of tension in the younger generation’s conceptualization of the war. “We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”[6] Bäumer has some serious words against the war and the inhumane aspects of it, “We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill.”[7] Yet at the same time when he comes home on leave, he realizes that he no longer has any place in his home town. His place is with his fellow soldiers. “I bite into my pillow. I grasp the iron rods of my bed with my fists. I ought never to have come here Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless – I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier…I ought never to have come on leave.”[8]
One of the most interesting from the younger generation is the formation of camaraderie within the troops. Instead of what they interpret as the empty rhetoric of the older generation, the younger generation embraces one another for support. The strongest example of this type of camaraderie comes at the end of a very intense battle for Bäumer. He is lying in one of the shell holes trying to motivate himself to rise up and find his fellow soldiers when he hears their voices. “At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices…they are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades. I am no longer…alone in the darkness; - I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”[9]
These two generations see two completely different sides of the war. The older generation sees the need to preserve the pride of Germany at all costs. They see death in the trenches as noble. They believe that they have a wider knowledge of what the war and nationalism was all about. The younger generation also has a deep love for Germany, but they understand what death in the trenches really is like. They know it as a wretched, burning, moaning hell. They know it from their own personal experiences that they do not feel have anything to do with the bigger noble picture that the older men see. At the end of the novel Bäumer sums up the feelings of his generation by saying, “And men will not understand us – for the generation that grew up before us, thought it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; – the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.”[10]
[1] Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (New York: Baltimore Books, 1996), pg. 194
[2] Remarque, All Quiet pg. 12
[3] Ibid., 168
[4] Ibid., 167
[5] Remarque All Quiet pg. 13
[6] Ibid., 88
[7] Ibid., 116
[8] Ibid., 185
[9] Remarque All Quiet, pg. 212
[10] Ibid., 294

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