I was forced to read this book for school this semester. I shouldn’t be super negative about it, because it has been on my TBR long before I was assigned to read it for one of my history classes, but let’s say I had mixed feelings about this book, more personal mixed feelings than I usually have.
Synopsis: (from Goodreads) “This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army during World War I. They become soldiers with youthful enthusiasm. But the world of duty, culture, and progress they had been taught breaks in pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches.
“Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principle of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another . . . if only he can come out of the war alive.”
This book is depressing…and I do not say that as an exaggeration. This book took me to the point of being extremely depressed in my own life. In many ways, it is a beautiful book. The story is well-written, the characters interesting especially the main character Paul, and the themes are moving and well-expressed. Remarque presents the feeling of false obsession with war starkly contrasted with the horrible realities of war. However, because the book is told from the perspective of a young man so disillusioned of the goodness of the war, there is little hope in this book from beginning to end. But I understand Remarque was presenting a realistic picture of the life of a soldier during WWI, as he himself lived.
The book is divided into five parts, and I would categorize them as either the front lines or sojourns. There is the battlefield, a time when he returns home for a short while, goes back to war, gets wounded and spends some time in an army hospital, and finally returns to war. I liked how this organization helped present a view of how different people in Germany saw the war.
The story is also filled with contrasts. You have the war for glory idealized by the young soldiers, shattered when they actually experienced war. You have the detached view of the people back in Paul’s home, who have not experienced war, making him feel isolated. You have even a difference between the hardened soldiers like Paul and the new recruits who don’t understand how to stay alive.
The biggest theme is perhaps the pointlessness of war. It is demonstrated throughout the entire book that neither side made any progress. It was just death along the front lines in France. The German troops would gain some ground, the French/British would gain it back, rinse and repeat. All this death and war and destruction was pointless. That is the main theme of this book.
There is also the slow descent into trauma suffered by Paul, from his beginning as a passionate soldier to giving up in the end when all his friends die around him. He suffers from severe PTSD, having horrible nightmares and feeling isolated as few others feel his pain or went through what he went through. But most importantly, he rather gives up hope of any future, even though he is just twenty years old near the end of the book.
This book does not shy away from the gruesome details of war, from men getting blow apart to details of infection and lack of food on the front lines. It is quite gross at times and if you have a queasy stomach, you have been warned.
I understand why this book is considered one of the most important war novels of all time, but I will admit I struggled to enjoy it. Of course war is horrible, especially a war like WWI which changed the face of warfare forever. However, there could have been more of a sense of hope in this book, with the war ending just right after Paul is killed in the end. It could have ended differently, and yet the final death completes this novel, set as a warning not to let such a pointless, bloody war happen again.
Have you read this book, or watched any of the movie adaptations? Is it a book you want to read? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,