Friday, June 29, 2018

All Quiet On The Western Front

I'm fascinated by the two wars that have reigned the fields I call home. Since World War II has a certain reputation I'm mostly drawn to learning and reading more of this dark period in our history and how it could come about and escalate to what is known as one of the highest death toll of both soldiers and civilians.

World War I hasn't been as much on my radar as the Second, but since I've begun reading this novel, I've learned quite a bit and it's more devastating than I could imagine.

The main difference between these two wars is the reason why nations were fighting. In the Second one you had a dictator who wanted to rule the world and thought it possible in his insanity.
In the first, however, it seemed like it escalated quite quickly over events that might have sparked nothing if everyone had just kept calm or more rational at least. It's marked as a pointless war, filled with pointless battles that cost millions of lives.

This novel is set around following a young German soldier, Paul Baümer, as he and his class mates are sent to the Belgian front. His heightened emotional state makes his testimony  a very peculiar one. Dangerous situations are portrayed adventurous, when they're not in the trenches he acts like it is just a kind of game he must play. Instead of focusing on the hardship of being on the front line, he highlights positive events, things that brighten his day.

There's a saying that even the worst can become tedious and that's how I imagine his situation must have been. Stuck there, no apparent way out, so that even the simplest things, like finding something good to eat seem like good fortune.

On the other hand, when it comes to the fighting and being under the barrage of hundreds of grenades and shell-fire his thoughts take a dark and fatalistic turn. His description of the attacks he is under are chilling and because of his rather emotionally attire quickly get under your skin. He isn't worried about the enemy, he doesn't hate the other side, he's only dead scared of the one enemy all the soldiers of all the countries involved have in common, which is death. The ultimate fate he's reminded of daily and tries to escape vigorously.

On top of that he can't picture a life for himself when the war is over. On his short leave, being home, he feels as despondent and alienated as if a whole generation has been cut off from the previous and the next. The lost generation, as they are aptly called, in which they need to give the war and what it cost them a certain place in their life while life continues, with all its pointlessness and petty rivalry. It will become their greatest challenge, of giving meaning to a life that wasn't given to them but earned by surviving the trenches. Of being sure that their survival had meaning instead of it being haphazardly spared the fate of their fallen comrades.

A lot of little things imprinted on me.
One of these scenes is when he's in close combat with a French man and mortally hurts this guy. At first he experiences joy of having survived this surprise 'attack' (the guy stumbled into the bomb crater where Paul was hiding). When he realizes the guy isn't dead yet, he regrets his action and tries to save his life, in vain. While the man is dying, Paul is tortured by guilt, regret and seeking ways to make amends with what he did. When he eventually gets back on the other side, the regret fades quickly. When he tells his comrades of what happened they let him watch one of the snipers taking hit after hit. His emotional reaction of having taking a life washes away, leaving more room for despondency and a tragic outlook on his life.

It's a novel I could recommend to everyone, even though it's not an easy read. It requires some effort and definitely time to mull it over. It could be read at a fast pace, but you'll miss what this novel is about.
In my opinion this novel is a kind of warning to not venture lightly into this kind of storm again, although we had to try at it again 20 years later.
It tells of a generation who has given its youth and got nothing in return. Where men who have a comfortable life decide the fate of millions. Where afterwards no one really knows anymore why they were fighting in the first place.