Friday, 8 August 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front - A reflection by Anna Belfrage

It is a very long time since I read All Quiet on the Western Front. Of course, it is even longer since the events the book depict took place, because Erich Maria Remarque’s book is set in WW1, but from a German perspective.

I recall my mother handing me the book and telling me that “there are always two sides to every story”. At the time, I was too young to really comprehend what she meant. I mean, the Germans were the bad guys in WW1, they were the bad guys in WW2, and that was it. Seriously, all those fields littered with dead in Flanders, all those young men mown down in their prime at Somme and at Verdun, they were English or French, courageous soldiers who took on the mighty army of the German would be emperors.
The truth, of course, is very different. It generally always is.

Still from the 1930 film

One cannot study WW1 as an isolated event. It is the consequence of previous wars, previous treaties, in this case harking back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 in which France lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussian Empire and Otto von Bismarck succeeded in unifying Germany. The French wanted Alsace-Lorraine back. The English were wary of the concentrated might of a unified Germany Reich. The Hapsburg Empire was croaking its way to imminent death, Russia was still smarting from previous humiliations, the Balkans was a powder-keg. Those infamous shots in Sarajevo were essentially no more than tinder to the powder, and in a series of chain reactions the Austrians went at the Serbs, the Russians voiced their support of Serbia, Germany came to the defence of Austria, France and Britain were linked to Russia via the Entente, and so, in a matter of weeks, all those simmering tensions in Europe exploded.

Five years of war later, almost an entire generation of young men had been wiped out – in England, in Germany, in France. Nine million young men dead in combat, almost as many civilian losses. A veritable blood-bath, leaving behind widows and orphans throughout Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, in India and America. For what, one wonders, because the fundamental issues remained as unresolved after the war as before, testimony of which is the even larger catastrophe of WW2.

Erich Maria Remarque was a veteran of WW1. His book is an attempt to describe the futility and waste of war, the permanent damages those five years caused to all the participants. Seconds of utter terror, minutes of action, contrasted against weeks of mind-numbing boredom in one trench or another. Young men, on the cusp of embracing life, were instead sent off to kill and mutilate, and no-one emerged unscathed from the horrible events on the Western Front.

A still from the 1930 film

In essence, everyone dies in this book – everyone, even the mother. There is no HEA, there are no knights on white horses, no welcoming damsels. There is only mud and blood, corpses and fear. The young soldiers in AllQuiet on the Western Front lose the single most important thing we humans have; they lose the ability to live – they can only kill or be killed, because the experiences they have suffered have torn all hope, all light from them. And without hope, what is there to live for?
It serves to remember that there were victims on both sides – there are always victims on both sides. Just like in WW2, the Germans lost as many lives – if not more – than any other European nation involved. Further to this, Germany lost the war, and the crushing terms of the Treaty of Versailles left the formerly so proud Reich a ruined country, a land of hollow-eyes waifs and gaunt adults. I guess the lesson here is that only those that are magnanimous in victory ever truly win a war – otherwise it is but a matter of time before the erstwhile enemy regains its strength and strikes again. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as if the powers that are have the capacity to absorb this particular lesson, and so the vicious circle of war will turn – and turn again. A truly frightening insight, don’t you think?

A still from the 1930 film

I may not remember every single event depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front. But I do remember how I cried when the last man standing, Paul Bäumer died, while on the radio the announcer stated that “all quiet on the Western Front”. Of course it was – everyone was dead.

Anna is the author of the Graham Saga and her website is She is also a favourite reviewer for The Review and if you would like your book to be reviewed by Anna please chaeck out our submissions page at the top of the blog.


  1. My mum, who was born in the late 1920's, always used to tell me of the generation of childless, single women around her as she grew up - a lost generation indeed.

    1. Gosh how sad for them. It must have been so awful, so many men across the continent gone. and it is said that war will never be like that again on such a scale but nothing changes.

  2. In WW2, over 14 Million soldiers died - and 45 million civilians. So sadly, things got worse rather than better.