All Quiet On The Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque: The Template For Modernity

 

Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque

Im Westen nichts Neues, more commonly known in English as All Quiet On The Western Front is the landmark novel by Erich Maria Remarque that explores the experience of a German soldier named Paul Bäumer, looking as the psychological effects of the war and addressing themes of detachment, as well as the devastating physical toll the war took on many of the soldiers.  The book, which was banned by the Nazis, is famous both for its ability to humanize the experience of WWI for both sides, but what may be perhaps the most important element of the novel is how it articulates the impact of semiotics; it is because of the power semiotics that men like Bäumer are motivated to enlist and through the process of signification that they are able to dehumanize the enemy and each other.  The novel addresses issues of class, nationalism, and technology and is an exemplar of what a Modernist text should be as it seeks to understand and correct the flaws of language so that travesties like WWI might be understood and avoided.

 

 

AQOTWFThe horrors of WWI caused many to challenge the authority of older generations, questioning both class and nationalistic values.  Remarque makes it clear at the onset of his novel that the work is part of this larger dialogue.  Bäumer, after having witnessed the destructive power of technology, states that those of his own generation were “to be trusted than” the older generation (12), noting that the “first bombardment showed [them their] mistake, and under it the world as [the older generation] had taught it to [them] broke into pieces” (12).  One of these notions was that of nationalism.  Kropp, one of Bäumer’s comrades, states two nationalistic premises, as if dissecting a syllogism, but is unable to draw a conclusion and so asks Bäumer to make sense of it for him: “we are here to protect our fatherland.  And the French are over there to protect their fatherland.  Now, who’s in the right?”  Bäumer responds: “Perhaps both” (124), though he does not have an answer.  The issue at hand is the inherent flaw of nationalism.  A nation is a construct employed by rulers to encourage its citizens to follow their instructions, even when they are contrariwise to the best interests of the citizens.  Bäumer articulates this succinctly toward the end of the novel: “why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely just the rulers” (125).  It is clear that the interests of the citizens and the interests of the ruling class are not in concert, and that the notions of nationalism, which the ruling class invokes, offer no concrete advantage to the citizens, thereby calling into question the value of notions like nationalism.

 

Upton Sinclair, author of 'The Jungle'.

Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle.

Because those who are sent to the front lines are predominantly working-class men, the construct of class also becomes one that is challenged in the novel.  As mention, Bäumer notes that there is no animosity between the working classes of Germany and French: the conflict is between the ruling classes.  The battle, however, is fought by the working classes.  While the working classes are supposed to fight for their nation, their nation does nothing for them.  Bäumer’s mother, for instance, is diagnosed with cancer and goes to the Luisa Hospital, but she goes into the ‘third class’ because his father doesn’t know what the operations costs” are going to be (120).  Though their son is risking his life to protect the nation, the nation’s hospitals cannot be bothered to provide proper care to his mother.  In the field, things are much the same.  When Kemmerich, a friend and comrade to Bäumer is on his death bed and suffering through immense pain, Bäumer asks the doctor to give him morphia.  The doctor replies: “If we were to give morhpia to everyone, we would have to have tubs full” (15).  The morphia is reserved for the officers who are from the ruling class.  The doctors, then, “only attend to officers properly” (15).  This discrepancy with how the soldiers are treated compared to the officers demonstrates how members of the working class are treated as though they were second, or in the case of Bäumer’s mother, third class citizens.  This is consistent with rhetoric going as far back as the Restoration.  In William Wycherley’s play The Country Wife, the antagonist, Mr. Pinchwife, speaks to keeping the private soldiers ignorant (17).  This utter disregard for the soldiers in Remarque’s work becomes worse as the war goes on.  In the finals months of the war, Bäumer notes that the food was “so bad and mixed up with so much substitute stuff that it [made the soldiers] ill.  The factory owners in Germany have”, as Bäumer notes, “grown wealthy” while “dysentery dissolves [the] bowels” of the soldiers (167).  The tragedy is that this is capitalist tact is one the caused the death of many American soldiers during the Spanish American War, many of whom were killed by tainted meat, something that spurred Upton Sinclair to write his novel The Jungle.  While the ruling classes sent the working classes out to do their dying and killing for them, the soldiers had to do battle with their own ruling capitalist classes at the same time, driving up the death toll to even more tragic totals.

 

pathsofgloryThough the level of violence and death toll was clearly not what was expected at the onset of a war that was supposed to be ‘over by Christmas’ those of the old guard “continued to write and talk” while the likes of Bäumer and his comrades “saw the wounded dying.”  Whilst the old guard “taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing”, Bäumer and men like him “already knew that death-throes are strong.”  Though Bäumer and those like him knew the death-throes too well, whilst those of the old guard did not, they were “no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards”, though the old guard “were very free with all these expressions” (12).  The ruling classes do not have to go to the front lines, and so know nothing of the bravery required to do this, yet when working-class men refuse to go, ruling classes employ words like ‘coward’ and ‘treason’ and ‘deserter’ to describe such men and, as is explored in the Stanley Kubrick film Paths Of Glory, many such men were tried, convicted and executed by their own countries for cowardice.  This shows the disconnect between the two generations: the older, which relied on theories, maxims and ideologies, and the younger, which was immersed barbaric and tragic experiences that were the logical conclusions of antiquated notions of class and nationalisms.  The dichotomy is mirrored by the one that exists between words and actions; signifiers and signified: it is this dichotomy that is the crux of the novel.

 

The German cover for All Quiet On The Western Front.

The German cover for All Quiet On The Western Front.

The systems of signs and signifiers that create false perception is the target of Remarque’s criticism.  When speaking to a system of social customs, Bäumer notes that the soldiers have “lost all sense of [such] considerations, because they are artificial” (17), demonstrating that the words and customs of the world are not representative of the authentic world.  When framing the activity on the front, Bäumer questions the potency of the words employed: “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse—these are words, but what things they signify” (81)?  The purpose of a word is to signify something, but if these words fail to capture the essence of the things they describe, then the useless.  In this case, the words utterly fail to encapsulate the brutality of the violence present in the actions, and so are false signifiers.  Bäumer discovers this at home when he is on leave.  He is reluctant to share his experiences, in part because he believes “it is too dangerous… to put these things into words” (102) and he fears “What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us” (102), but when he does share some small details with those who have not been in the trenches, he notes that they  “understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, only with words” (105).  It is the signifiers that they understand, not the signified.  They have access to the signifiers, but no access to the signified; they are like an inversion of those who sit in Plato’s cave.  While the pataphysical or metaphysical population of Plato’s cave have never seen sunlight and therefore cannot know what it truly is, regardless of what words are used, the German civilians who hear Bäumer’s words cannot understand the true sense of darkness and despair because they have not been to the front.  The words, therefore, are false, and Bäumer must admit to himself that even where once words filled him with purpose, “they do not reach” him now (107).  The falsity of language is linked with the Modern critique of concepts like nationalism espoused by the ruling classes via an internal dialogue Bäumer has: “How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when [the travesties of war] are possible.  It must all be lies and 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.”  Bäumer concludes by saying that only a “hospital alone shows what war is” (160).  Bäumer is suggesting that only the signified, the actual soldiers and their actual injuries, can demonstrate the impact of war, and not signifiers.

 

The language of the war tried to sanitize the mass deaths an countless amputees.

The language of the war tried to sanitize the mass deaths an countless amputees.

The process of signification, when applied to people, is a dehumanizing process, a process that is required in order to facilitate the killing that goes on during the war.  As mentioned, Bäumer wonders as to what the words “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse… signify” (81).  They are euphemisms that aim to dilute the atrocities they represent (a topic George Carling discusses with tragically accurate dark humour).  These are words, not just for murder, but for mass murder, and just as the ruling class creates words that dilute the potency of mass murder, they do the same to people.  The enemy is not seen as human, but simply as an enemy. As Bäumer states “It is not against men that we fling our bombs” (71).  This is manifest most dramatically when Bäumer is forced to take cover in a crater created by a shell.  He is worried about another soldier finding his way into the crater and constructs a metaphysical reality to decide how he would respond.  When a soldier does fall in with him, Bäumer stabs the man to death.  Afterwards, however, he feels remorse, and speaks to the corpse: “you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response.  It was that abstraction I stabbed” (136).  It is only an abstraction, then, that he kills.  He dehumanizes the soldier and turns him into an abstraction, but when he sees the actual man, he realizes that it is a man, not so different from himself.  The similarity between he and the enemy in haunting, as he notes earlier in the novel when he speaks of the peasants of France: “They look just as kindly as our own peasants in Friesland” (117).  The military even objectifies their own men through signification in a similar way.  Bäumer observes that before he had entered training camp, recruits were the victims of brutal hazing, but now, “In many ways [they] are treated quite like men” (58).  This is perhaps epitomized most succinctly in the novel’s final passage, from which Remarque draws the title.  On the day that Bäumer is killed on the field, his country’s issues a report: “All quiet on the Western front” (175).  Because they have dehumanized even their own men, the death of one, or even a few, amounts to a ‘quiet’ day and the death is therefore not even worth reporting.  The language suggests that the death of a soldier equates to nothing at all.

 

cherryblossoms

Cherry blossoms

In contrast with this signification, Remarque seems to suggest embracing a natural language while juxtaposing natural forms of expression with their constructed human counter parts to demonstrate the divide between the two.  Early in the novel, Bäumer speaks about natural instinct and how had a soldier not “abandoned himself to… impulse, he would now be a heap of mangled flesh”, suggesting that they have become like “human animals” who rely in instinct to anticipate falling shells and find sufficient cover (37).  This is an example of humans embracing nature, but there is an unnatural response to pain present throughout the novel.  Though pain is rampant throughout the war, there are few expressions of it.  Men are either chloroformed or given morphine in some instances, and in others are either knocked unconscious or keep silent to avoid giving their position away to the enemy.  The censorship of expressions of pain facilitates the willful blindness of those on the front.  When it is a natural element of nature that is the victim of shelling, though, there is no censorship outside.  In one scene a team of war horses are hit and the noise they make expresses the pain they endure: “this appalling noise, these groans screams penetrate, they penetrate everywhere” (42).  The horses to not attempt to hide their pain, but express it freely and naturally.  War, and the pain it causes, as well as the responses to it, are all unnatural, because they happen within a social context and there are certain expectation.  A man, for instance, can’t cry for pain because it is considered cowardice.  Bäumer makes it clear that such behaviour is not natural: “Why have I always to be strong and self-controlled?  I would like to weep and be comforted too, indeed I am little more than a child” (113).  Here he suggests that there is a self that is no in concert with the prescription of masculinity handed down to him by society.  It is only when alone, when separate from a social setting, that Bäumer can become one with his natural self, as he himself states that “It is when one is alone that one begins to observe Nature and to love her” (116).  This innate appeal to the natural world is demonstrated by a solider named Detering, who upon seeing the blossoms of a cherry tree, becomes homesick for the farm on which he lived as the farm had a multitude of cherry trees.  This connection with nature reminds him of what life is supposed to be and he shortly thereafter deserts the army.  It is clear that the natural realm is one that informs, while the human constructed realm only serves to muddy the meaning of things.

 

Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure

In the context of war, natural language is rejected in favour of a nomenclature that sanitizes what is going on.  Ferdinand de Saussure argues that the language of a society reflects that society, be it representing their values, or illuminating their social ills.  Bäumer offers a catalog of words toward the end that seems to do the later: “Shells, gas clouds, and flotillas of tanks—shattering, starvation, death” (169).  While the word ‘flotillas’ has a military connotation, the words ‘shells’, ‘gas’ and ‘clouds’ do not.  The words were transformed into macabre words.  In childhood, the word ‘shell’ my recall a pleasant time on the beach, playing in the sand and discovering a treasure from nature.  In the context of WWI, it translate to death and maiming.  ‘Clouds’, likewise, can be linked with a summer day in childhood where one lays on a field and watches the clouds go by in the sky.  In the context of WWI, however, it refers to the gas clouds that were the result of chemical warfare.  ‘Clouds’ transforms into a word that represents death, and poison.  Then there are words like “Dysentery, influenza, typhus” (169), which perhaps less common before the war, became far too commonplace.  While they might have been framed as naturally occurring illnesses, in the context of WWI they were the result of conditions created by war, and so the ruling classes were thrusting them onto the working classes.  Rather than being a treatable, naturally occurring illness, in the nomenclature of WWI, they become “murder” and “death” (169).  Bäumer concludes his catalog with “Trenches, hospitals, the common grave” (169).  ‘Hospitals’ was a word that exists before, of course, but it was not juxtaposed with ‘trenches’ and ‘the common grave’.  This is a nomenclature that speaks to the results of the war, a trench, which would have been a word a farmer used to refer to a method of irrigation, now becomes associated with hospitals and graves.  Though the catalog of words comprise less than 50 words, they are a collection of words that bear witness to the social ills of WWI.  While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a word can be worth ten times that in instances such as these.

 

Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow

This new nomenclature represents a shift in changing values, and throughout the narrative Remarque demonstrates how war causes people to abandon that which they once valued.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs likely didn’t enter the minds of enlisted men, but this changed when the war started.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places the acceptance of truths at the top of the pyramid, but Bäumer suggests that the truth is too painful: “terror can be endured so long as a man simply ducks… but it kills if a man thinks about it” (86).  Though the terror is a fact, Bäumer would rather remain willfully blind to it in order to preserve his sanity.  Though Bäumer explains that before the war he enjoyed reading, in the trenches, there are not thoughts of literature: with limited supplies, food and rest were all the enlisted men desired (86).  This might have even come at the expense of one’s own health, as Bäumer explains when describing how injuries are viewed in the trenches: “A broken arm is better than a hole in the gut, and many a men would be thankful enough for a chance of finding his way home again” (34).  In the trenches of WWI, then, a broken arm would be preferable to a healthy one, demonstrating that a broken arm is preferable to the brutality of trench warfare.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also places developing a lack of prejudice at the top, and though Bäumer tries to humanizes the enemy, this prejudice is very much present, most especially when he speaks of the ‘black’ troops and makes harsh generalizations about them.  When at home, away from the trenches, he is able to empathize with the Russian prisoners of war and share cake with them, but in the trenches, the ‘black’ soldiers are mocked.  Rationale, likewise, is no longer important, as Bäumer concedes: “What matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence, but the system, not freedom but drill” (17).  Yielding to the ‘system’ and the ‘drill’ is representative of unquestioning sublimation to authority, an authority that soldiers believed, or hoped, would ensure their safety and basic survival.  The soldiers, then, renounce their own autonomy with the hopes of improving their chance of survival.  In the process of this preoccupation with one’s own survival, the respect for individual human life soon recedes.  When Kimmerich, has a leg amputated and is on his death bed, Müller, another solider in Bäumer’s company asks for his boots (14).  This seems callous, but Müller knows that Kimmerich won’t need them, and Müller will.  Rather than consoling Kimmerich on his death bed, Müller acts the part of scavenger bird and wants to pick the corpse clean of all he can use.  Later in the novel, Bäumer’s own callousness becomes clear through his internal dialogue: “When a man has seen so many dead, he cannot understand any longer why there should be… anguish over a single individual” (112).  The closing passage, as mentioned, demonstrates how the military as a whole sees things in the same manner.  On the day that Bäumer dies on the field, their daily report states “All quiet on the Western front” (175).  Deaths are not even worth mentioning.  What might have been news four years prior, is no longer worth mentioning.

 

 

A trench from WWI.

A trench from WWI.

After having just recently re-read the Tao Te Ching, I found several echoes of the Chinese poems in Remarque’s work.  Bäumer mentions that it is a tragedy that horses be used during the war (42), which seems to speak to the poem in the Tao Te Ching that states horses should be used to haul manure to enrich the ground, not be bred a warhorses. The Tao Te Ching also notes that even the finest weapons is an unhappy tool, and Bäumer notes that he sees “the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring” (16).  Regardless of what words are used to describe the weapons, it is clear that they are contrary to the natural way of life and that they are ‘unhappy tools’.  The nomenclature described throughout the novel can also be linked with the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tzu spoke to how a culture’s words were symptoms of society’s ills, for instance, the more laws a society has, the more of a mess it is in, and the more experts a society has, the more monstrous inventions it will create.  This is certainly in keeping with how Remarque frames the ‘keenest brains’.

 

Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger

There is an interesting reading of one scene that can be applied to Schrödinger’s cat.  In Schrödinger scenario, a cat is placed in a box and then exposed to something that can kill it.  However, because the box obscures the cat, one cannot know whether or not the cat is alive or dead.  With both possibilities viable, the cat becomes simultaneously alive and dead.  Though Schrödinger’s theory was not introduced until 1935, several years after the publication of Remarque’s novel, the scenario described by Schrödinger’s is one that describes the life of a solider.  Once they leave home, those at home mourn their death and hope for their life, and do not know which is reality, so both exists simultaneously.  This is perhaps articulated best when Bäumer kills a man.  He knows that the man is dead, but notes that for the man’s family, he will continue to be alive until the receive word otherwise, placing him both in the world of the living, and the world of the dead. Bäumer also postulates that even after his family gets word, a stray letter may arrive from the dead man, bringing him momentarily back to life.  This is interesting as well because it speaks to how the written word can be a means to immortality.  The scenario has several readings and carries a number of implications that speak to the uncertainty of life and how we keep those we care about alive.

 

AQOTWF1The word ‘profound’ may be one that is too commonly used, but it is one that is suited for this novel.  Remarque is careful to use a language that is accessible to everybody.  He does not take sides or use the novel as a forum to discuss politics outside of perhaps class.  Instead, he uses it to describe a time when the words humanity and humane were not synonymous.  He explores how language is employed to reinforce class divides and sanitize war crimes, while tearing down notions of nationalism as abstract ideas that offer nothing but are called upon to defend heinous crimes.  The novel is an exemplar of what Modernity is about and what Modern art aims to do.  Remarque’s dialogue on signifiers and semiotics and linguistics puts flesh to the arguments put forth by Saussure and presents them in a way that the reader can see the true power of language and bear witness to how the flaws and manipulation of such language can serve to be a corrupting influence.  It is a book that will likely remain relevant for generations to come, and should be required reading for ever highschool student.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  If you enjoyed this review and would like to receive updates on my latest posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching.  Trans. Ursula K. LeGuin. Shambhala.  Boston. 1997.  Print.

Remaque, Erich Maria.  All Quiet On The Western Front.  Crest Books. New York.  1928 (reprinted in 1964).  Print.

Wycherley, William.  The Country Wife.  From Restoration Drama.  Ed. Eugene Waith.  Bantam. New York. 1968.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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