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A critical review of A Universal Loss of Innocence: “All Quiet on the Western Front”
Author: Katherine Perry
Written: January 23, 2009
Paul Bäumer lives in a world where killing is the only way to live, memories are as foreign as the enemy himself, and a single bombardment can age a man fifty years. He lives in a planet of ceaseless violence and tragedy and however he is numb — also estranged from his past to seek solace in recollections of his youth and as well hopeless to fathom the possibility of escaping the hellish reality of his present. Paul Bäumer is lost, but he is not alone. Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front is a harrowing account of the human face of war and the poignant psychological wounds that inflict an entire generation. Remarque’s novel tells of a universal loss of innocence that left an complete demographic estranged, dehumanized, and disillusioned.
In the novel, Remarque describes a core of males who know how to play cards, swear and fight – something he says is “not considerably for twenty years — and but also much for twenty years” (89). When Paul and his comrades joined the army they were mere teenagers, unaware that the war would strip them entirely of their youth. “We are none of us a lot more than twenty years old,” he says. “But young? Youth? That is lengthy ago. We are old folk” (18). The “damnable business” of war, as Paul puts it, has totally estranged him from his past. Memories function only as “soundless apparitions” that can't be relived or fully comprehended. “They are past, they belong to one more planet that is gone from us,” he explains (121).
This sentiment comes to the forefront when Paul is granted a two-week leave from the battleground. House among all that is native to him, he feels alienated and alone. Remarque writes:
“We [soldiers] could by no means once more regain the old intimacy with these scenes. It was not any recognition of their beauty and their significance that attracted us, but the communion, the feeling of comradeship with the factors and events of our existence, which cuts us off and produced the globe of our parents a issue incomprehensible to us…” (122).
When Paul puts on his civilian garments, he feels “awkward.” When he appears into his mother’s eyes or scans the volumes of books on his bedroom shelf, a “sense of strangeness” and a “terrible feeling of foreignness” come over him. “I cannot feel at residence among these factors,” he says. “There is a distance, a veil among us” (160).
The distance Paul speaks of also describes the generational divide in between soldiers his age and those who have currently carved out adult existences prior to the war. The older generation’s background is “so powerful that the war can't obliterate it” (20). Paul and his former classmates differ in that they have no adult lives to which they can return. They have no occupations, no wives, no foundation on which to rebuild their lives. “We had yet taken no root,” he explains. “The war swept us away” (20). For the thousands of males who transitioned from the classroom to the battleground, the post-war era presented an insurmountable identity crisis.
Estranged from past and future, Paul desperately holds on to the present: “I am a solider, I should cling to that.” (173). But getting a solider does not give a correct identity. As an alternative, the subsequent dehumanization only erodes his generation’s sense of self even far more.
“The column marches on, straight ahead, the figures resolve themselves into a block, people are no longer recognizable, the dark wedge presses onward, fantastically topped by the heads and weapons floating on the milky pool. A column – not males at all.” (57)
The essence of a solider is that he must represent the antithesis of an person. He must obey command and act in accordance of the group. But, as Paul soon learns, the calm and orderly image of a marching column falls apart amid the chaos of battle. Each and every man have to fend for himself. He need to kill to reside. This primal necessity of warfare brings out the beast in each and every soldier. “We march up, moody or good tempered soldiers,” says Paul. “We attain the zone where the front begins and grow to be on the instant human animals” (56). Paul refers to this transformation as “seeing red”, and the dehumanization that renders the soldiers “hardly distinguishable from Bushmen” (274) causes Paul and his comrades to reconsider the which means of the war to which they have provided their lives.
“The thought of authority, which [the leadership] represented, was linked in our minds with a greater insight and a much more human wisdom. But the very first death we saw shattered this belief.” (12)
The reality of war transforms the soldiers’ faith in their leaders into a marked disillusionment. At one point Paul and his comrades ponder the cause for the war. One soldier suggests a new sort of warfare that would pit a couple of representatives from each and every country against each and every other in battle, so as to spare the mass bloodshed like that they have observed thus far. They agree that their cause for killing is fairly arbitrary. “A word of command has created these silent figures our enemies, a word of command might transform them into our friends.” (193) To Paul and his comrades, the war is a senseless force. There is no grand strategy – luck is all that determines a man’s survival or death.
“It may possibly very easily have happened that we must not be sitting here on our boxes today it came damn close to to that. And so everything is new and brave, red poppies and good meals, cigarettes and summer time breeze.” (10)
Paul speedily realizes that each day he lives marks yet another narrow escape from death. “It is just a matter of opportunity that I am nonetheless alive as that I might have been hit,” he says soon after one particularly violent bombardment (101). The daily brushes with death wear on the young soldiers. They quickly (in Paul’s words) grow to be challenging, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, and tough – a lot more than something nonetheless, they turn into disillusioned. “The war has ruined for us every thing,” says Albert (87). For them, the previous holds no comfort and the future holds no hope. Utilizing Paul as his mouthpiece, Remarque beautifully describes the essence of this newly “lost” generation:
We are forlorn like young children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial — I think we are lost (123).
Remarque’s commentary on the human face of war transcends boundaries of time and space. His philosophies and his conclusions, although specific to Planet War I, are universal in which means. The “common fate” of Paul’s generation is indeed the frequent fate of all generations who knowledge the vile reality of war at such a malleable age. The shells and bullets irreparably destroy each memory and hope, generating wounds that can not be noticed but are maybe felt deeper than any other.
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