Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Adventure classics -- A thousand chances to die

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque


After his first battle, young soldier Henry Fleming in last week’s Adventure classic, Red Badge of Courage, still had the will and intellect to rail at God and fate. After two years of war, the young soldiers of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front can only endure.

“No soldier outlives a thousand chances,” muses twenty-year-old Paul Baumer, the twenty-year-old protagonist. “But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck.”

Baumer’s luck, as we know, will run out a month before the armistice that ends the First World War, “on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.” But until that day, Baumer will keep us terrified, cheering, crying, and sometimes laughing with him and his comrades in what has been called the greatest war novel -- more accurately, the greatest anti-war novel -- of all time.

Remarque -- originally named Erich Paul Remark -- relied on his own experience as a German soldier to craft his semi-autobiographical novel. As biographer Hilton Tims relates in Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic, Remarque’s family was originally from Alsace. But they had crossed the border into western Germany more than century before Erich’s birth in 1898, Germanizing the spelling of their family name along the way to “Remark.”

Like his novel’s protagonist Paul Baumer, Tims writes, Remarque, sent to the front in 1916, was an unwilling recruit, “one of the fast-growing corpus of conscription-age German teenagers disenchanted by the duration of the war and the horror stories filtering back from the front line.”

Those who survived would return to a home changed beyond recognition.

“But what will really happen when we go back?” one of Paul’s companions wonders during the war’s final year.

“It will go pretty hard with us all,” says Kropp, the one designated early in the novel as “the clearest thinker among us all, and therefore only a lance-corporal.” “The war has ruined us for everything.”

So it would prove for the Heimkehrer, Tims writes, “the young ‘homecomer’ serviceman returning to a defeated, sullen homeland which felt betrayed by the armistice and in its frustration regarded the innocent soldier as a symbol of the betrayal.”

The Nazis would later ban Remarque’s books and send him fleeing across the German border to Switzerland and later to the United States, his former antagonists. Left behind was the question Kropp asks, what would have happened “if twenty or thirty people in the world had said No (to war).” And Paul’s answer: “But they damned well said Yes.”

Remarque’s books and Tims biography are readily available at

(Next Wednesday: Adventure classics turns from stories of young protagonists to an October of Halloween horror, with Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.)

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