'it must never happen again'
translated by Brian Murdoch
I should really have read this classic novel of war well before now; not just because it was recommended reading when I first joined the comapny of War Horse over two years ago but also because it was the title I chose to give away to 48 lucky members of the audience on the innaugural World Book Night last year. I've said before that you sometimes need a bit of planetary alignment to nudge you towards reading a particular book and when the technical rehearsals for the latest cast change at work (traditionally a good time to get some reading done) happened to fall the day after Remembrance Sunday and after a fortnight of collecting for the Royal British Legion then there really did seem to be no excuse any longer.
So, where to begin? Remarque's novel, based on his own experiences at the front, is a classic piece of war literature, importantly providing for all of us British readers a German perspective on the bloodshed and even more importantly than that a voice of dissent from the trenches. It is this that made the book so notorious in his native Germany, that encouraged the Nazis to add it to the list of books to be consigned to the flames, and that makes it such an important novel today as we approach a century since the war to end all wars began. The novel is narrated by Paul Bäumer, whom we follow with a few of his school friends as they are encouraged to enlist and are sent to the front to fight. Instilled with homespun rhetoric and the idealism of their teachers and elders it isn't long before the realities of conflict alter their view. Not only has schooling provided them with little of practical use in a war zone ('Nobody taught us at school how to light a cigarette in a rainstorm, or how it is possible to make a fire even with soaking wet wood - or that the best place to stick a bayonet is into the belly, because it can't get jammed in there, the way it can in the ribs.') but all of the certainties, their very reasons for fighting in the first place quickly fall away.
While they went on writing and making speeches, we saw field hospitals and men dying: while they preached the service of the state as the greatest thing, we already knew that the fear of death is even greater...all at once our eyes had been opened. And we saw that there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone - and we had to come to terms with it alone as well.
What we gain from the narrative is not so much specifics about the military campaign (I was never entirely sure where I was along the western front, nor which specific battles where being described) but an insight into what it felt like to be one of the confused, young men in those trenches. The different sounds of the various munitions, the poor conditions, the new values that make tobacco or rare foodstuffs worth more than all the money in the world, the camaraderie, the humour, the landscape where a hundred yards of brown, churned-up earth can contain the whole world.
...the power to defend ourselves flows back into us out of the earth...The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else. When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and with his limbs, under fire and with the fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety, the earth absorbs it all and gives him another ten seconds of life, ten seconds to run, then takes hold of him again - sometimes forever.For these young men who 'had just begun to love the world and to love being in it' the effect of being forced 'to shoot at it' is an almost immediate alienation. Isolated from civilisation, brutalised by fighting, numbed by bombardment, the idea of progress disappears to be replaced by nothing other than the belief in war itself. When that happens even the terror of fighting recedes into the background; these once green recruits find themselves feeling like experienced soldiers, amazed in turn by the inexperience and inadequate training of the next batch coming through. There is also time for other highlights to shine through; the men's visit to a house over the river to see three French women, their revenge on the brutal corporal Himmelstoss, and Kat's frequent ability to scavenge food whenever required including a goose at one point which he and Paul roast. This last event provides a moment for Paul to reflect on the unlikely intimacy of war.
What does he know about me? What do I know about him? Before the war we wouldn't have had a single thought in common - and now here we are, sitting with a goose roasting in front of us, aware of our existence and so close to each other that we can't even talk about it.
Perhaps the defining moment of the novel is Bäumer's trip home on leave, which is almost unbearably moving. There are tears as soon as he walks through the door but the awkwardness of his renewed contact with his family is brilliantly described by Remarque. His mother is dying from cancer and the two of them have so much they might say to each other but can't, his father doesn't know how to speak to his son of his experiences and Bäumer finds that the place where he grew up is no longer a one where he feels he belongs. For fellow bibliophiles there is a telling moment when Bäumer goes through the book collection that once gave him so much joy and finds that he can't read any of them - 'Words, words, words - they can't reach me.'
The true impact of this trip home is felt when he returns to the fray. First comes the return of fear, particularly in one scene that finds him stuck in a shell hole during a bombardment, paralysed by that fear of death, rescued finally by hearing voices in the trench behind him ('Those voices mean more than my life, more than mothering and fear, they are the strongest and most protective thing that there is: they are the voices of my pals'). Then comes his first real engagement with the reality of fighting when he kills a French soldier in hand to hand combat and watches him die slowly. Realising how little separates them he makes a vow.
'Your turn today, mine tomorrow. But if I get out of all this, pal, I'll fight against the things that wrecked it for both of us: you life and my -? Yes, my life too. I promise you, pal. It must never happen again.'
This might have led to Bäumer becoming some kind of crusader for reform or political settlement post-war but as his friends are slowly picked off by Death a hopelessness sets in and we see how Paul has been utterly destroyed by his experience. All the more reason to make sure that we heed the vow he made, for this great war novel is of course a great anti-war novel. One that retains a devastating impact and fully deserves its classic status.