Today we are analyzing one of Remarque's most famous and ambiguous books. In it, he departed from his standard narrative line and plunged into a completely different setting – the time of the First World War.
The novel was released in 1929. Many publishers doubted its success: it was too outspoken and uncharacteristic for the ideology of the heroization of Germany that took place at that time.
The First World War put an end to the tradition of military heroism in Western literature. The declaration of the war in August 1914 was still accompanied by general enthusiasm, was welcomed with solemn verses and articles. Many believed that a new, heroic period of history had come with the onset of the battles, that they themselves and their friends were called upon to become fighters for a just cause, the saviour of freedom. The war was perceived as a message of the coming great era, requiring renewal of society, rebirth of a human.
But the longer the war lasted, the fewer reasons for heroic impulses in poetry and prose were. The use of particularly effective weapons (long-range artillery, aviation, tanks, poison gases), the protracted nature of the fighting (the months-long sitting in trenches, followed by months of bloody offensives and retreats), incredible mass battles and severity of losses – all undermined the very foundations of military patriotic literature and led to refutation of the war.
Erich Maria Remarque, who went to the war in 1916 as a volunteer, was not so much an author in his work as a ruthless witness to what he saw on the European battlefields. Honestly, simply, without unnecessary emotions, but with ruthless cruelty, the author described all horrors of the war that irrevocably ruined his generation. It is the novel not about heroes, but about victims, to which Remark reckons both young people dead and those rescued from shells.
Like Ernest Hemingway, the author used the notion of "lost generation" to describe young people who, because of the trauma they had received in the war, were unable to get into civilian life. The work thus stood in sharp contradiction with right-conservative military literature, prevailing in the era of the Weimar Republic, which, as a rule, tried to justify the war lost by Germany and heroize its soldiers. Remarque is a German anti-fascist. He, like his hero Paul, does not see the difference between people in the war, the opponents are not monsters, they are the same as we are – we are trying to survive. In one episode, Paul apologizes to his dead enemy, he even wants to write a letter to his wife.
The theme of the war as a terrible error of humanity passes through the whole narrative. It bears death, pain, blood, sweeps the state and the nation on its way. Victims of it are just people for whom the war is unnatural, but by the will of morally and physically sick tyrants, they are involved in a deadly action called war. All social is erased in a human, there remains one animal fear, which makes it necessary to fight for the preservation of life.
The strongest instinct of a human is the instinct of self-preservation. Therefore, the war turns human mind inside out. It is alien to the very principle of the existence of humanity.
It is about the action that took millions of lives, crippled the fates and bodies of even more people, stopped the existence of such mighty powers as the Russian, Ottoman, German and Austro-Hungarian empires. The whole experience of Europe, created over many hundreds of years, was destroyed. Life had to be rebuilt. Consciousness of people was infected with horror of the war.
The author describes what he experienced himself. He was a sapper. During the battle, his friend was wounded by a shell. Remarque saves his life. He appears in the book under a different name and dies in the hospital. There is no more romance and solemnity of the parades. Everything was flooded with a blood-red colour war. Remarque was wounded. There is a hospital. And the end of the war. But the scar on the heart, on the mind and soul remains for life.
The novel, written in four weeks, was a huge success. Erich Maria Remarque became famous.
But all this work was only a stage for the transition to real prose. At that time, Adolf Hitler wrote "Mein Kampf". It is interesting that both Hitler and Remarque participated in the same war, perhaps they fought shoulder to shoulder. But the war turned one into a monster, and the other became a convinced pacifist. Comparing the novel of Remarque and the book of Hitler, one does not immediately understand that they describe the same time, so different perception of reality is.
Hitler announced the book of Remarque banned in Germany, as it undermines the foundations of the state, and the author himself was declared a traitor. The writer leaves Germany. He lives in France, Austria, USA. It was Hollywood that first screened this book. At the same time, his sister Elfriede was seized and executed in Germany. By personal order of Hitler, her head was cut off.
The novel shows absurdity of the war. Its main characters were recruited to the army from the walls of the school. They come from peasant families and the war is alien to them. The narrative is similar to the diary of one of the heroes, Paul Baumer. The novel is not eventful but this only exacerbates the paints and intensifies the feeling of doom.
They were pulled out of ordinary life and thrown into a slaughterhouse, where you need to survive. War cut off the heroes from their usual reality. They are physically and psychologically isolated. They intuitively understand that they were betrayed by those who started the war. The former ideals and values of life disappeared under the bombing splinters. There was no culture, no art. Even human relations were scattered with the explosion of the next projectile. A new worldview was created in the process of survival.
But the war is over. Survivors must return to a peaceful life. Only how, if there is the war in the heart, desire to survive in the mind, and the spiritual world is destroyed. The whole generation which went to the front in the 17-19 years was unwanted after the conclusion of the truce. This is it, the lost generation.
The writer was the first in literature to describe the war in this way. He told about death, about sticky animal fear, about meaninglessness of everything that is happening, about horror of the very fact of killing one person by another quietly, almost routinely. Survivors remain victims of the war forever.
He was hated by fascists. He was called a non-German, his books were burned on the main street of his native city. It was forbidden to show a Hollywood film, based on the Remarque's novel. Writers of the proletariat also reacted negatively to this work, accusing the author of excessive pacifism. But the popularity of the novel among readers has proved that all criticism is useless and subjective. A reader remains the main judge.