All Quiet on the Western Front.

Author:Delahunty, Robert J.
Position:Book review

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, By Erich Maria Remarque. A.W. Wheen trans. 1929. New York: Ballantine Books. 1982. Pp. 296. $13.95.


    Ever since its publication in 1929, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front has been regarded as a landmark of antiwar literature. (1) Appearing a decade after the end of the First World War, the novel became a literary sensation almost overnight. Within a year of publication, it had been translated into twenty languages, including Chinese, and by April 1930, sales for twelve of the twenty editions stood at 2.5 million. (2) Remarque was reputed to have the largest readership in the world. Hollywood took note, and an equally successful film appeared in 1930. (3)

    The success of the novel was as unexpected as it was spectacular. Readers across Europe had displayed little interest in books about the war throughout the 1920s, but after Remarque's success, the public's appetite proved voracious. (4) It was as if the publics of the great belligerents needed the perspective of a decade before they could begin to relive the experience of the war.

    The war's scale and horror are scarcely imaginable to us--indeed, they were similarly incomprehensible to those who lived through it. The military death toll was between nine and ten million. (5) France lost nearly one in every five men mobilized, some 10.5% of the nation's active male population. (6) German, Austro-Hungarian, and British losses, though fewer, were commensurable. On average, almost 900 Frenchmen and 1300 Germans died every day between the outbreak of the war in August 1914 and the armistice of November 1918. (7) In a single day, July 1, 1916, some 20,000 men in the British and Dominion forces were killed and another 40,000 wounded--deadlier than any day in the Second World War. (8)

    The violence done to these soldiers (largely recruited from the civilian population) was unprecedented. The war saw the use of new and dreadful weapons of destruction, including tanks, flame throwers, mortars, hand grenades, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas. (9) The machine gun, a fairly primitive weapon when the war began, became a fearsome defensive weapon capable of dealing out death and injury on an industrial scale. (10) Combat on the western front took place mainly over a "terrain swept by bullets, shells and gas." (11) About forty percent of all those mobilized were wounded at least once, and "the gravity and type of wounds inflicted ... had no precedent." Despite medical advances, "[t]he fate of those who were wounded was by and large atrocious." (12)

    Remarque's novel conveys these terrible realities unsparingly. With brutal literalness, it describes the shuddering horror of an artillery bombardment (pp. 58-59, 106-107), the panic of a gas attack (pp. 68-69), the agonies of the wounded (pp. 71-72), the indifference of medical personnel (pp. 31-32), the ubiquitous presence of terror and death, and the untrammeled sovereignty of chance. Paul, the book's hero-narrator, and his comrades come to realize how deeply and enduringly the war has alienated them from the world outside the front. One says: "Two years of shells and bombs--a man won't peel that off as easy as a sock" (p. 87). Another adds: "The war has ruined us for everything" (p. 87). Small wonder, then, that the immense success of All Quiet on the Western Front was acclaimed by some as "a sort of plebiscite in favor of peace." (13)

    Remarque's novel was primarily an exercise of imagination rather than of memory--not so much a depiction of the war as a "passionate evocation" of the general public mood of "dissatisfaction, confusion, and yearning" that pervaded Europe and the world at the end of the 1920s. (14) It would be a mistake to characterize that public mood as "pacifist" in an absolute sense (15): even in Britain, which had the strongest peace movement during the interwar years, the largest pacifist society had only 136,000 members at its peak in 1936. (16) A kind of fatigue settled in after the war, however, most clearly in France and Britain. (17) That fatigue may help explain those two nations' policy of appeasement in the late 1930s, culminating in the infamous Munich Pact of 1938. (18)

    If Remarque's work displayed the futility of the war, that of his countryman Ernst Junger, another survivor of the trenches, sought to evoke the war's inner beauty and meaning. (19) While Remarque's narrator says "we believe in the war" despairingly, Junger says it exultantly. Junger thought that his fellow combatants were mistaken to ask what idea or cause gave meaning to the war: "[T]hey did not understand that the war was the meaning of their lives." (20) Artists like Remarque and Junger showed that reflection on the experience of war could unfold in either of two directions. For Remarque, war is meaningless, nothing is worth killing or dying for, and peace is worth any price, even conquest and defeat. For Junger, war is an ineluctable necessity of the human condition, and while we cannot escape our fate, we can transcend it by finding that the experience of war gives life meaning. (21) (For many, the events of 1914-18 excluded a third possibility: that war could serve what Hegel called the "ethical idea" embodied in the state. (22))

    Some would argue that the Remarquean belief represents the long-term trend and that the First World War in particular was a catalytic event that marked the end of warfare as one of mankind's master institutions. (23) But at least in Central Europe over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, the Jungerian belief prevailed: Ernst Nolte, for instance, characterized the interwar period as the "era of fascism." (24)


    Remarque spoke for the millions of people in the interwar period who longed for an end to armed conflict. Those longings were expressed in law as well as in literature. An impressive body of international law developed after the Versailles Treaty that was specifically designed to prevent the recurrence of war. Yet by 1939, only a decade after All Quiet on the Western Front was published, the world stood on the brink of another, even more destructive war, and the tremendous legal structure that had been erected to prevent such a catastrophe lay in ruins* While noble in its goals, the peace-through-law movement failed because it was built on unrealistic assumptions about the malleability of national self-interests and overconfidence in the efficacy of law.

    The interwar legal regime, centered on the idea of collective security, was an outgrowth of three seminal documents--Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points," (25) the Versailles Treaty, (26) and the Covenant of the League of Nations. (27) Three major trends, linked together under "the famous formula 'Arbitration, Security, and Disarmament,'" (28) were to dominate the formation of the law of war in the interwar period.

    First, the prewar European "balance of power" system was thought to have failed to maintain the peace and to be inherently unstable. (29) Thus the interwar period saw the formation of international agreements that called for various kinds of collective-security measures designed to prevent or punish offensive war. (30) Second, the international system began to create permanent judicial and arbitral institutions intended to foster peaceful dispute resolution in accordance with international law. (31) Third, as an outgrowth of Article 8(1) of the League Covenant, (32) the interwar legal regime witnessed "the most sustained program of international disarmament in history." (33)

    In addition, three further developments were at work. First, it was widely acknowledged that the prewar Hague Conventions had failed to effectively regulate new forms of weaponry. (34) Treaties were accordingly made or proposed in the interwar period to repair those omissions. (35) The results were mixed. (36) The Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 (37) reflected "the abhorrence and outrage with which the international community reacted to the use of gas in the First World War" and marked the successful culmination of earlier attempts to regulate and limit chemical warfare. (38) On the other hand, the draft Hague Air Rules of 1923 (39) "never were adopted by any nation[;] they were an immediate and total failure." (40)

    Second, the demand to outlaw war was expressed, not only in agreements designed to define and deter aggressive war, but also in provisions imposing individual criminal liability on the political and military leaders of the aggressor nations. This trend--which originated in wartime demands to bring the Kaiser to trial and was reflected in Article 227 of the Versailles Treaty--entailed a radical departure from prior rules of war that had privileged such leaders against personal liability. (41) The international criminalization of war was eventually implemented at the Nuremberg Trial of 1946. (42)

    Finally, there was an extremely tentative development--unfulfilled at the time--for the creation of a pan-European union of states. (43)

    All these efforts were anchored by the idea of collective security. (44) Woodrow Wilson had conceived that idea as follows:

    [C]ollective security involve[d] the creation of an international system in which the danger of aggressive warfare by any state is to be met by the avowed determination of virtually all other states to exert pressure of every necessary variety--moral, diplomatic, economic, and military--to frustrate attack upon any state. (45) This international security system was designed to be collective in a full and exact sense: "[I]t purports to provide security for all states, by the action of all states, against all states which might challenge the existing order by the arbitrary unleashing of their power." (46) Collective security rejected the status quo balance-of-power doctrine that international equilibrium could be maintained by shifting coalitions comprising...

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