A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

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A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Thu Oct 26, 2017 3:27 pm

I just read the German original of this (Im Westen nichts Neues, a common newspaper communication during World War I) for the second time, the first time being many years ago. It holds up very well as a masterpiece, describing the effect of the last two years of World War I on a group of school comrades who were sent to the western front. Erich Maria Remarque wrote it over a six-week period when he was suffering from depression, a full decade after he was demobbed. He had been wounded during his service and actually spent only a few months at the front.

This time, I read the reviews that were assembled in the back of the book, which I had not bothered to read last time. Most of them were quite laudatory, especially one by Carl Zuckerman, himself a veteran of the war and a first-rate writer. (Personal note: He spent World War II as a refugee in Vermont and wrote about this in a book that I have on my shelf, entitled Die Farm in den grünen Bergen. His autobiography, Als wär's ein Stück von mir (Like a Piece of Myself) is also worth reading. The University of Vermont gave him an honorary degree some 30 years ago.)

Back to the book: It became an instant sensation and world-wide bestseller. It was very explicitly not political, nor historical. It was simply a story about a small piece of human life under horrendous conditions. But not all of the reviews were laudatory. The Nazis hated it, and it was promptly banned when they took power in 1933. (Before that, it had been removed from the military academies in Germany as being bad for military discipline. But they did so apologetically, saying they intended no judgment on its literary merits.)

But, those Nazis. In one of the reviews, they spread solid lies about Remarque, saying his father ran a kosher butcher shop, that his real name was Markus, that he was never anywhere near the front, etc. Here's a sample (and I can't imagine anybody could read this aloud without frothing at the mouth):

Völkischer Beobachter (München), 14 June 1929 wrote:
...Es ist eine jauchzende Entschuldigung der Deserteure, Überläufer, Meuterer und Drückeberger und somit ein zweiter Dolchstoß an der Front, an den Gefallenen aber eine Leichenschändung...Der Krieg war keine seichte Moritat mit Sauglockengebimmel. Das schreien wir, solange wir können—und man wird uns hören müssen!

(Translation)
...It is an enthusiastic excusing of the deserters, turncoats, mutineers, and slackers and hence a second stab in the back against the Front, while also being a desecration of the corpses of those who fell...The war was not some trivial ballad about murder with bells tinkling in the background. We shall shout this as long as we are able—and people will be forced to listen!


The truth is that Remarque was Catholic. He escaped the Nazis and managed two more major achievements in his life. (1) He married the gorgeous Paulette Goddard in 1958. (Coincidentally, she was Jewish, and perhaps a bit past the prime that made me fall in love with her in Modern Times, the movie she made with her then-husband Charlie Chaplin.) (2) He lived until 1970.

The book was made into a fairly good movie, but censorship being what it was, a lot of the scenes were too sexually explicit and/or too violent to be shown. It might be possible now to convey the full impact of the book in a film, but until that happens, I recommend reading the original or a good translation.
"How do you teach events that defy knowledge, experiences that go beyond imagination? How do you tell children, big and small, that society could lose its mind and start murdering its own soul and its own future? How do you unveil horrors without offering at the same time some measure of hope? Hope in what? In whom? In progress, in science and literature and God?"

Elie Wiesel

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Re: A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Postby bobbo_the_Pragmatist » Thu Oct 26, 2017 5:01 pm

Read it in college along with a few other "anti-war" of note. Including:

Red Badge of Courage, When Johnny Comes Marching Home (or was that just a song?), Johnny Got His Gun, Slaughterhouse Five.

The profanity of War hasn't changed from the first thrown rock.
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Re: A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Thu Oct 26, 2017 8:55 pm

bobbo_the_Pragmatist wrote:Read it in college along with a few other "anti-war" of note. Including:

Red Badge of Courage, When Johnny Comes Marching Home (or was that just a song?), Johnny Got His Gun, Slaughterhouse Five.

The profanity of War hasn't changed from the first thrown rock.


So true. The Red Badge of Courage was written by Stephen Crane, who had never been in battle. Later in his life, he got to watch an actual battle up close, and declared it was just as he had imagined it. Slaughterhouse Five is a surrealistic masterpiece, also made into a superb movie. It was based on Vonnegut's actual experience during the bombing of Dresden. (A piece of sheer revenge by the allies. The place had no military value.) But Remarque wasn't writing an anti-war novel. It's just that any honest depiction of war winds up being anti-war. Tolstoy, who knew what battle was, having fought in the Crimean war of 1856, did not disguise the horror of it, or attempt to make any of the soldiers into idealized heroes when he wrote War and Peace. Remember the old song Where have all the flowers gone?. "When will they ever learn?"
"How do you teach events that defy knowledge, experiences that go beyond imagination? How do you tell children, big and small, that society could lose its mind and start murdering its own soul and its own future? How do you unveil horrors without offering at the same time some measure of hope? Hope in what? In whom? In progress, in science and literature and God?"

Elie Wiesel

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Re: A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Postby bobbo_the_Pragmatist » Thu Oct 26, 2017 9:14 pm

Its been too long.........but.......I have reread Slaughterhouse Five........and it is anti-war..... not by polemic but by just as you say "an honest depiction of war" ((HAH==>with a huge dose of Sy Fy and existential philosophy making it the masterpiece we agree on)). Same with Red Badge??

Ha, ha........I'm put into the context of South Park and an Anti-War History Lesson from Mr MacKey: "War is bad...mmmkay?"

Gee Whiz.........I forgot the best book ever written, I think from the same class but maybe another: Catch-22. Just telling a story, and not even all that "horrible" if you strike out a scene/theme here and there.

edit: It immediately strikes me......."the subject" of these books as is the setting is WAR. Slaughterhouse has a more general theme that merely includes war. So many unread books.......where is the gold???? New, or rereading the old?
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Re: A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Fri Oct 27, 2017 11:31 am

I'm with you on "Catch-22." You laugh all the way through it because the jokes are really hilarious, and yet you know it is at most a slight exaggeration of the truth. The movie was pretty good, too, with Alan Arkin, Bob Newhart, and Paula Prentiss.

As for a reading list, I look on any new book as an investment of time, and I'm increasingly loath to take any risks, as time runs out for me. I go back to the books I once loved and read them again. I read "War and Peace" for the fifth time last summer. It has its flaws, and its view of history is skewed (that is, wacky), but the humanity in it is magnificent.

As Thoreau said, read the best books first, or you may never read them. He also tried to tell us what the best books are, but his recommendations don't work for me. I get nothing out of reading the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the works of Confucius, and the writings of Zarathustra. Matter of taste... Even the Iliad and the Odyssey have only occasional high points for me (like the death of Argos in Book 18 of the Odyssey---magnificent). On the other hand, the most perfect poem I've ever read in English, "The Shield of Achilles"---again, powerfully anti-war---by WH Auden, is based entirely on Book 18 of the Iliad, and unless you knew what Homer wrote, wouldn't be fully understood.

ETA: Ignore the commentary that follows Auden's poem in that link. It grandiosely misses the point and tries to make the whole poem about modern America. My God! Has this moron never seen pictures of the Nuremberg Rally?
"How do you teach events that defy knowledge, experiences that go beyond imagination? How do you tell children, big and small, that society could lose its mind and start murdering its own soul and its own future? How do you unveil horrors without offering at the same time some measure of hope? Hope in what? In whom? In progress, in science and literature and God?"

Elie Wiesel

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Re: A classic: "All Quiet on the Western Front"

Postby bobbo_the_Pragmatist » Fri Oct 27, 2017 5:37 pm

On Catch-22: I still vividly remember my college Prof telling us that we would find the book "hilarious" and then he commented that the veterans in his night class often could not read the book at all: Too Real. I've not shied away from rereading Catch-22 for that reason.......just too many other books to get to.

I am fully possessed of Snowden's Secret though, and the battle line just being a string on a map. and I did get a bit of Major Major when delivering artillery shells to Israel on Day One and Medical Supplies to Lebanon the next day. "Where are the cotton balls" I said to dispatch...but they didn't get it. Never educate your troops. Get them young and dumb.
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