Loss of Innocence and Idealism
Hi, I'm Alan Erwin, from Amarillo and I've been reading All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque.
The “Great War.” The “war to end all wars.” Is there such a thing? Without actually asking those questions Erich Remarque gives us an answer and that answer is no.
Mr. Remarque tells a story of WWI through a group of German boys, the “iron youth” as their schoolmaster called them. Young men taught that the war is just and necessary and that fighting is an honor you give your country. A long worn-out refrain used from Homer's Illiad to the current era of old men sending the young to fight.
Our primary protagonist is Paul Baumer, a 20-year old boy from a small German village. The older male students of the village school are pressured into joining the army by nationalistic speeches from administrators, tales of the glory of battle and the threat of being ostracized for failure to enlist. One such boy becomes, on his first day at the front, the first of the village's young men to die in battle. Glory and honor indeed.
Fully ensconced in their trenches the war drags on. The time alternates between terror and tedium. These former boys are now men, soldiers slowly becoming this new life and growing away from their old. What was once unthinkable is now the norm. In one particularly telling scene, Paul explains their new bathroom routine. What was once a personal, private and hygienic moment becomes a time of camaraderie and shared moments or as Paul puts it, “I no longer understand why we should have shied away from these things before.” Only later to realize that, “ In time, things far worse than that came easy to us.”
Coming late to war, Paul and his friends begin to realize that they no longer have a place in their previous life. They realize the men who've been fighting this war since the beginning had lives before this time of killing and dying. They had careers, families, lives of purpose and meaning, dulled perhaps, but not lost in these filthy trenches or the killing field between the enemy and themselves.
Paul begins to know that he has no life to return to. His innocent, idealistic youth cannot be his again. He and his friends are now a lost generation of souls without an anchor other than to survive, not sure why, but that is what we do as humans.
At one point Paul and his unit are given leave to return home for a few days. The life they return to is alien. The people of the village are living untouched by the world of the soldier. This place is no longer home. No one understands what they have experienced. This new war is unlike any that was ever experienced. They are alone.
The only person Paul can begin to connect with is his dying mother. He tries to comfort her as she tries to comfort him with words that show her love and compassion and fear for him, her son. No one but a mother can realize what these no-longer-boys are now living.
The actual story of All Quiet on the Western Front is not about any one character or moment of narrative. It is a story of the true horror of war. More than mere death, it is the loss of self, the loss of innocence, the loss of hope that there might be a future rooted in the past.
Are there good wars? There might be noble causes, but can the day-to-day business of actually fighting a war ever be good?
A modern philosopher once asked “War, what is it good for?” I think we all know the answer.
I'm Alan Erwin for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club