Monday, May 24, 2010

War is Hell

A Critique of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front

In 1928, World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque penned All Quiet on the Western Front as a scathing denouncement of the horrors of war. Through the fictional first-hand account of a young German soldier (Paul Bäumer) fighting in the trenches, Remarque portrayed the bitter fruits of war: the alienation of an entire generation, the destruction of former beliefs and values, and the eventual dehumanization of the individual. Ultimately, Remarque challenged antebellum Enlightenment ideals and presented a worldview of Postmodernism in which man is doomed to an existence of despair and can find peace only in death.

Prior to World War I, optimism reigned. The Enlightenment philosophy taught that man was progressing and would eventually be able to solve all the world’s problems. Yet the horror and carnage of the war revealed that this progress had led to technology with the ability to take rather than prolong human life. The war struck a blow to the belief in the superiority of Western civilization and destroyed any idea of the innate goodness of man. Postmodernism soon took hold and swept away the modernist Enlightenment worldview. It emphasized a bleak disillusionment for the things of the past. While the characters of Remarque’s novel might look back with yearning for their former life, they ultimately conclude that such a life had been nothing but an innocent and naïve lie that had not yet been tested by the fires of war.

First, Remarque attacked the senseless idealism of the previous age and emphasized the alienation of those soldiers who would return from the war. When Paul Bäumer is given several days on leave, he finds himself unable to cope with civilian life. He struggles to rekindle his former dreams and the ideals of his youth, but discovers they have all been violently shattered. Bäumer observes, “Today we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travelers. We are burnt up by hard facts…We might exist there; but should we really live there? We are forlorn like children and experienced like old men—I believe we are lost.” He describes his memories of the past as looking at a photograph of a fallen comrade. Bäumer attributes this alienation to his rejection of the identity that was created for him by society. He must reject the generation that called him a hero for willingly sacrificing his life in a meaningless war. In a discussion with his fellow soldiers, he tries to determine why the war is being fought at all. His friend exclaims, “A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France.” Essentially, they are asking – for what are we dying? Lashing out against his former teachers Bäumer exclaims, “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 …We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.” Rather than uniting the young men and their teachers in a common cause, the war had widened the divide between these two generations.

Second, as these soldiers were alienated from the previous generation and way of life, they were also forced to abandon their former beliefs and values. Even their faith in God was tested. Many ended up placing their lot with chance rather than trusting in the providence of God. Bäumer wryly observes, “It is just a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I may have been hit…No soldier outlives a thousand chances. But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.” This idea of chance is contrary to the teachings of the Enlightenment. Most Enlightenment thinkers had been deists. They theorized that God was like a watchmaker. Just as a watchmaker designs the watch, winds it up, and then lets it run by itself, so too God had created the world and now let it run according to the rational and orderly laws he had established (with no divine intervention by him). Bäumer, on the other hand, sees World War I as proof of irrationality rather than order and logic. He declares, “It must be all lies…when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood…these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands… The keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.” The Enlightenment had elevated reason and professed a belief in man’s ability to progress to perfection. But had this progress accomplished perfection? Was it perfection to develop weapons that would kill and maim your fellow human beings? Uninhibited reason had not led to a utopia. Rather, it had led to the hellish reality of trench warfare and exposed the darker side of human nature.

Third and, finally, World War I dehumanized the individual. Dehumanization is often an excellent propaganda technique. Warring nations are quick to demonize their enemies. This stirs patriotic fervor. After all, the German soldiers and French soldiers had never had a personal quarrel. An innocent peace-loving French writer had no desire to fight a German farmer. Thus, the German farmer must be deceived into thinking that the French writer is evil and bloodthirsty. Bäumer discovers this reality when he becomes lost in the trenches, murders a French soldier, and then must wait in the trench with the dying Frenchman. He laments, “Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us…Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” But the war does not only dehumanize Bäumer’s enemies. It dehumanizes him as well and turns him into a killing machine. He admits, “What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -- it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death.” He understands nothing but how to kill. Alienated from civilian life, it is doubtful whether he could ever abandon his life as a soldier. Indeed, while many would hail World War I as the war to end all wars, Bäumer scoffs at such a belief. World War I has simply triggered a cycle of killing. He declares, “The days, the weeks, the years out here shall come back again, and our dead comrades shall then stand up again and march with us…we shall have a purpose, and so we shall march: -- against whom, against whom?” Bäumer understands that even though they may put away their weapons, the world has been transformed into a society where death and killing are the only realities. With the Enlightenment beliefs destroyed, the world is doomed to an existence of irrationality and desolation. Reason no longer distinguishes man from the animal. Men have been “transformed into unthinking animals.”

Ultimately, Remarque’s novel gives no answer and no hope for how to begin building back the ruins of war torn Europe and the Enlightenment viewpoint. Nearly all of the main characters die, almost hinting that it is meaningless to continue to live in the wake of such destruction and despair. Commenting on Bäumer’s death, Remarque writes, “His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” Indeed, death is the only thing that can bring the postmodern man seeming peace. It is the one thing that is always sure and cannot be escaped.

[See Photos of the Great War for more original pictures from WWI]

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 12:10 PM


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