I chose to start re-reading this particular book on November 11 this year, and having finished it the next day, to post my log entry on Remembrance Sunday, for reasons which will be be clear if you know anything about the book at all. This is the fictionalised memoir of the Great War, based on Remarque’s own experiences as a German Army conscript stationed on the Western Front.
My own copy is a battered cloth-bound copy from the year of first publication, though from the twentieth print run some six months after its first publication in English translation. I bought it in, I think, 1988, because I had heard a little about it and wanted to read it for myself, and so when I ran across a cheap copy in a second-hand bookshop I picked it up. And was devastated by it. At school I had studied the Great War, and the lead-up to it, starting with the intricate balance-of-power treaty jigsaw created by Bismarck and its later unravelling. I had watched in respectful silence the old men at remembrance parades. But this book took the war out of the realm of history, and made it real in a way I’d never encountered before. It gave voice to the ordinary soldier at the Front, without taking sides. It was all here — the harsh conditions, the need to dehumanise the enemy simply to be able to cope with the killing, the sense of dislocation felt by soldiers returning from the front line to their homes far from the battlefield, the uncomprehending jingoism by those at home who had never seen battle.
The book was banned by the Nazis, and no wonder. It was a threat to their mythology, and a vivid undermining of their glorification of war for the Fatherland. The relevance of its message has not diminished down the years. War is neither glorious nor romantic, and the comradeship of soldiers is bought at a very high price indeed. And yet bleak as it often is, there are many moments of high humour in the book. Remarque was a skilled writer, and knew very well how to contrast the horror with the moments of emotional peace and even joy that could be found in quiet times in the trenches. This is an emotionally wrenching read, but very much worth the time.