Monday, 28 September 2015
On Truth and Fiction in Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929)
As with any novel concerned with historic events, Remarque’s Im Westen Nichts Neues has been scrutinised for historical accuracy, but to do so is to ignore its status as a work of fiction. Drawn as various sections may be from individual soldiers’ experiences, this is no documentary piece (however much Remarque may use the word ‘berichten’, or ‘to report’) and is indeed one of the few such fictional publications in the 1920s amid swathes of journalistic memoirs. That its fictitiousness be recognised is no pedantic worry over classification or genre; in fact, it is crucial to what is ultimately successful about the book but also what is its principal purpose – namely, not so much to convey with precision and accuracy the horrors of the war, nor to advance a platitudinous pacifism, but rather to lend a voice to the very specific emotional turbulence felt by its participants. In this respect Remarque succeeds, and especially if we do not view him as the authoritative, objective final word on the First World War (to which erroneous view some have inclined) he certainly convinces us of the emotional aspects of the destruction wrought on his particular generation.
The centre of Remarque’s work, and the reason for his generation’s destruction, is brutalization, and the subsequent trauma with which the majority are unable to cope. This unfolds throughout the book in no particular structure, rather through a ‘mosaic’-like sequence of anecdotes and experiences, but it is often conveyed particular in Paul Bäumer’s most reflective passages. Remarque devotes a significant amount of time to reflecting on how his generation have been dehumanised. Bance and others have pointed out that only 80 of the book’s 288 pages actually see any action on the front, and of those 80, a considerable portion is devoted to reflection on the brutal nature of the action that is unfolding.
What is particular disturbing about the emotional fallout of life in the trenches is the loss of what it means to be human. This occurs with alarming regularity: war demands an ‘Aufgeben der Personlichkeit’; what drives soldiers on the battlefield is ‘der Instinkt des Tieres’; soldiers are ‘Menschentiere’; when in an optimistic frame of mind Bäumer declares ‘manchmal werden wir schon wie Menschen behandelt’; ‘aus uns sind gefährliche Tiere geworden’; soldiers are ‘Automaten’; and so on. One of the most Expressionist passages occurs in Chapter 4, at which juncture it is almost as if earth itself is waging war and crying out: ‘es ist der Jammer der Welt, es ist die gemartete Kreatur, ein wilder, grauenvoller Schmerz, der da stöhnt’, and again ‘es ist, als ob die Erde selbst tobt’. We are reminded of the men’s status as animal creatures time and time again in other ways, in the repeated insistence that all they really need for contentment is to eat, sleep and defecate; they are driven by the impulses of sex and by the need for as much pleasure and excess away from the front as possible, since, without such hedonism, the hours are ‘öde’. Similarly, the puerile (though viewed with understanding and without judgment) revenge the ex-schoolboys taken on the despotic caste of Prussian pedagogues, ideologues and non-commanding officers reveal an unrestrained inhumanity.
These examples all highlight the primitivism of man as an agent within the war, but also of the conflict itself, a concept disturbingly placed alongside the technical brilliance and innovation devoted to furthering the war. Remarque places on the same page musings on atavism and mankind’s descent into conflict (‘es muss alles gelogen und belanglos sein, wenn die Kultur von Jahrtausenden nicht einmal verhindern konnte, dass diese Ströme von Blut vergossen wurden, dass diese Kerker der Qualen zu Hunderttausenden existieren’) but alternately the technical brilliance of human achievement, devoted as it is to the furthering of this atavistic impulse (‘ich sehe, dass die klügsten Gehirne der Welt Waffen und Worte erfinden, um dass alles noch raffinierter und länger dauernd zu machen’). What this effect achieves – an effect highly in keeping with the Expressionist movement within which, at least to some extent, Remarque was writing – is to remind us of man’s baseness, of man’s animalistic nature, and of man’s inability to retain any vestige of humanity in the most traumatic situations. As Westphalen puts it, ‘Kriegsrituale legitimieren den Akt des Tötens, der in Zivilleben nichts als gemeiner „Mord“ ist’.
This is achieved both stylistically and thematically. Remarque often relies on asyndeton and parataxis to convey the disjointedness and fragmented nature of these soldiers’ experience, of being uprooted from ‘Zivilleben’ and being ‘verschlungen’ by the war: such sections as the memorable alliteration combined with asyndeton and parataxis in Chapter 11, for example (‘Granaten, Gasschwaden und Tankflotillen – Zerstampfen, Zerfressen, Tod…Ruhr, Grippe, Typhus, Würgen, Verbrennen, Tod. Graben, Lazarett, Massengrab…’) depict how the sentence itself as a concept has broken down in the face of such atrocity (similar to Adorno’s dictum ‘Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch’). This is again reflected in the uselessness of high culture (such as the structure of Schiller’s plays) to which the adolescents have been subjected in preparing them for the world of rifles and shells, and is also indicative of the breakdown of civilisation and culture which was becoming an increasing fascination in the modern 20th century world more broadly. Bance identifies the trauma of war as taking place in a wider context of ‘Materialschlacht’ involving a ‘mass industrial age devouring men and materials in a self-perpetuating system’.
The next logical emotional aspect for this generation with which Remarque is concerned is the all-consuming nature of the war and its brutalization of the young recruits. Remarque dramatizes the central tragedy of the generation he knows in that they were just the wrong age in 1917 – too old to escape the war’s trauma, and yet too young to yet have a structured framework of life (family, employment) to which they could return when the war was over. ‘Wir sind alte Leute’, he says mournfully of the young schoolboys who set out full of the celebrated ideals of Bildung and the Prussian instinct to be a good instrument of the state. The brutalization which they have been through has become their predominant experience of life. ‘Der Krieg hat uns weggeschwemmt’, Bäumer says, and again ‘wir glauben an den Krieg… der Krieg hat uns für alles verdorben...es war unser erster Beruf im Dasein. Unser Wissen vom Leben beschränkt sich auf den Tod’).
This state of having experienced little else besides war is what leads to the justification of Remarque’s phrase ‘auch wenn sie seinen Granaten entkam’. There is no hope of future, because the world they were beginning to experience was taken from them. Again, Remarque writes with hindsight, of the knowledge of the difficulties faced by the ‘Heimkehrer’. Since they are of the age which ‘begannen die Welt and das Dasein zu lieben’, the gunfire and grenades have robbed them of everything. This Lost Generation is a concept dealt with profoundly elsewhere by Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald, who wrote they had ‘grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken’. Remarque shows this particularly well in Chapter 7, in which we see Bäumer completely unable to adapt to life back home whilst away on Urlaub. It is one of the more unashamedly sentimental yet also highly effective passages, in that it illustrates how far the war has removed him and his fellows from any hope of a normal future. These ‘Bilder des Früher’, viewed with such nostalgic Romanticism, this ‘Landschaft unserer Jugend’, is completely sealed off to them now. Psychologically, there is no place for them in a world of banalities. ‘Ich bin noch nicht ganz da’, says Paul; the sympathy of family members and friends does no good because ‘keiner empfindet es mit seinem ganzen Leben’. The intellectual passions and interests he once had – poetry, lepidoptery – are dead to him, much as he might wish they’d come back (‘den schweren toten Bleiblock schmelzen’). It is brought quite literally home to him how unsuited he is to this kind of life, how the war has wrecked it for him (or how he has been ‘verdorben’ as in the infamous quotation). Modernist man would always identify with the ‘füchterliches Gefühl der Fremde’ or the cry ‘ich bin ausgeschlossen’, predating as they do Camus’ L’Étranger. But his is a very specific trauma rather than any one existential malaise, and as such it is shared by few. This is returned to in the final moments of the book: ‘die Jahre werden zerrinnen, und schließlich werden wir zugrunde gehen’. The future looks bleak.
One of the most remarked-on elements of Im Westen Nichts Neues is its idealisation of ‘Kameradschaft’, almost to the point of view of culthood. Many of the most stylistically lyrical, transcendental sections, in which Bäumer’s consciousness reaches far beyond himself and seems to grope at something far greater, but which continues to elude him, concern this phenomenon of ‘Kameradschaft’. In a key passage he calls it ‘dem Besten…was der Krieg hervorbrachte’ and idealises ‘die Stimmen meiner Kamaraden’. The proximity of death intensifies the already intense modern experience of being alive – shortly after Kemmerich is dead we read of Bäumer’s vivid sensation: ‘die Nacht lebt, ich lebe. Ich spüre Hunger, einen größeren als nur vom Magen’. Similarly, the closeness he feels to Katczinsky: ‘wir reden nicht viel, aber wir sind voll zarterer Rücksicht miteinander, als ich mir denke, dass Liebende es sein können...was weiß er von mir, was weiß ich von ihm...wir fühlen unser Dasein und sind uns so nahe, daß wir nicht darüber sprechen mögen’. And yet even the bittersweet closeness of these comrades, even the moments of consolation that brings, ultimately contributes to the malaise his generation feels. The ‘Hunger’ is of course never satisfied, because nothing could ever deliver a thrill or a fear like the front line; and Kat and Bäumer do not know what is unfolding in each other’s minds. It is an artifice, a semblance of unity.
It has been shown, then, how Bäumer’s account illustrates how his generation has been demeaned, dehumanized, cast off from civilisation and left with a complete inability to cope. Of course a few words must be said here on the veracity of the account. Remarque speaks through Bäumer as though he has the authority to be a mouthpiece for an entire generation, when in reality it is ‘insufficiently representative to purport to be a documentary account of the war, since it [shows] only the subjectively observed experiences of one small group of young infantrymen on one short sector of the front during one phase of the war’ (Littlejohns). Yet the very limitations of the account prove its effectiveness – the blurring of time, the ignorance of the privates, the dehumanisation of war, and the vivid portrayal of its emotional scarring. The novel encourages us to reflect on the damage wreaked on these young men. Remarque may have Bäumer make the defiant statement, ‘das Leben, das mich durch diese Jahre trug, ist noch in meinen Händen und Augen. Ob ich es überwunden habe, weiß ich nicht. Aber solange es da ist, wird es sich seinem Weg suchen, mag dieses, das in mir “ich” sagt, woollen oder nicht”, but this doesn’t protect him from the bullets of the French. A mysterious omniscient third-person narrator steps in and recounts the death of the young man we have been accompanying. The novel’s conclusion is clear: even when war is practically over, death comes for all of the survivors, for those that can write and tell about it afterwards as much as for those who are killed on the first day of the Somme. ‘What’s done is done, it cannot be undone’: the war’s damage is irretrievable and unstoppable. It is for this reason that, whatever the novel’s historical dubiousness, Remarque’s preface is convincing and justified.
Bance, A.F., Im Westen Nichts Neues: A Bestseller in Context, in The Modern Language Review, 72/2, 1977.
Littlejohns, Richard, Der Krieg hat uns für alles verdorben: The Real Theme of In Westen Nichts Neues, in Modern Languages: Journal of the Modern Language Association, 70/2, 1989.
Remarque, Erich Maria, Im Westen Nichts Neues, KiWi, 18. Auflage 2012.
Westphalen, Tilman, Nachwort, ibid.