Reading this novel, I asked myself, why would the Nazis ban this book?
Because at first, it’s just a story of young men going to war narrated by Paul Bäumer. Boredom, irritation at rules, pulling pranks. What’s dangerous about this?
Soon it got more real, bodies and exhaustion and terror and blood. So, maybe this is what the Nazis, gearing up for a war and hoping to stir up young men enough that they’re willing to kill not only foreigners but their own countrymen. But don’t young men know what war is about? Killing and being afraid and dying? This reason seemed inadequate.
Later, though, came the passages that I think must have been the biggest reason this book was banned.
“It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.” (140)
Remarque threatens the propaganda machine necessary to bring young men into service.
In Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of growing up in Germany between the two World Wars, Haffner describes how the government promoted in schools the glorification of World War I, getting young boys to focus on maneuvers and strategy (something in which my own son is very interested) rather than on whether Germany should have been fighting the war in the first place. By hooking them with strategy and numbers and warcraft, the government got these children fired up about war so that, in a few years, they would enthusiastically enlist. The government at the time needed these young men to see World War I in terms of strategy with a motive so black-and-white it didn’t even warrant considering. Remarque’s novel does the opposite. It questions the reasons for war and the things those making the war say about it.
The men, during a moment of quiet, are discussing the relationship between “home-country” and “State.”
“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home-country.”
“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it’s merely the rulers.” […]
“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”All Quiet on the Western Front, pp 205-206, Ballantine Books Trade Edition, 1996
In order for these young men to kill, they have to see those in front of their bayonets and hand grenades as not human, or at least as not worthy of life. They must not reflect on similarities between those in front of their rifle and those behind because the necessary conclusion would either be that none of them deserves to be killed or that none of them is worthy of life.
“We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” (113) If they don’t believe their own lives are worth defending, there’s no need to keep moving forward against the enemy. But there’s a safeguard against that: If one man finds it difficult to see the value in his own life, there’s the comrade next to him to defend.
Upon hearing his friends’ voices when he was lost in the dark, Bäumer says, “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;—I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” (163)
If the bonds of country and the instinct for self-preservation are insufficient to keep a person fighting, there are the bonds of friendship to fall back on.
Remarque’s Bäumer is stuck. He sees the human in those in front of him, but he also sees himself and his friends as human. To believe both and still fight is incompatible with sanity. And yet he has to keep fighting because that common man over there is trying to kill him and the only way out is to kill the other man first. His choices at this point are severely limited.
This is how war is set up. Those in power put into motion something that is self-perpetuating. They exploit the instinct for survival to get people with no real reason to kill each other to do just that.
This, I suspect, is why the Nazis banned this novel. Not because it describes the horrors of war, but because it lays bare the reasons the war is happening in the first place.
I’ve been trying to focus, when I read anything, on how the lessons in each book/article/poem can help me develop my own character. What in that piece of writing can I use to become morally and ethically stronger?
If I apply this question to All Quiet on the Western Front, there are a couple of takeaways, neither of which is particularly new to me.
One is that the way you get one person to kill another is either to make that other person seem not human or not worthy of life or get the other person to attack first, reducing the first person’s choices to “kill or be killed.” This applies to situations outside of war. It applies to Stand Your Ground laws. It applies to police killings, both those in which police do the killing and in which police are the ones killed. It also applies, I think, to domestic violence and sexual assault and human trafficking and other crimes that don’t necessarily end in the taking of life. It applies to border security and how to respond to a refugee crisis.
Related to this is the knowledge that seeing another person as human or not, as worthy of life or not, isn’t usually, or perhaps isn’t ever, simply a matter of the perspective of an individual. This dehumanizing is systemic, and it’s centuries, millennia old. Someone finds this structure useful to maintain. While there are those few whose benefit is obvious, we all share to one extent or another in the benefits of a system that dehumanizes other people. Because those benefits are so diffuse, it doesn’t work just to identify and remove from power those who obviously benefit, although this is a start. To reform the structure, we need to remove or neutralize the benefits themselves.
Having identified these points, I don’t really know what’s actionable in either of them. The development of character isn’t necessarily about action; it’s about readying oneself to make the most moral and ethical choices possible when the opportunity for action arises. But still, writing a book review or a blog post feels entirely inadequate, like maybe doing nothing is better.
“How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies or of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.” (263)
Does the fact that this appears in his novel mean that Remarque is arguing that his novel itself is senseless or “of no account”? If this is true, where does this leave us? I suppose it leaves us—or me, at least—with an existential crisis, as usual.
Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics challenge.