Vera Brittain gave us her Testament of Youth, an account of a generation of youth lost whether they lost their lives or survived World War One, for those who lived, something of the essence of youth was lost to them forever and none who were part of it were unaffected or not changed by it.
Earlier in the year Juliet Greenwood gave us a fictional account of woman during World War One in We That Are Left, a novel that highlights the significant changes in the lives of women during that period, to the point of not going back to the way things were.
More recently Richard Flanagan’s Testament of Horrors, which for this reader was more than was possible to absorb, despite the later redeeming passages I may have missed, so visceral were his descriptions.
And now, I add the German Literature classic All Quiet on the Western Front to that tome of war literature that shares something of the experience and its effect, the novel by Erich Maria Remarque telling the story of Paul Baumer, a 20 year old German soldier.
He and his friends are pressured by their schoolmaster to join up early, an action that won’t be forgotten and which will be repaid when they meet again under different circumstances.
“For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress – to the future. We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognise that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. They surpassed us only in phrases and in cleverness. The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces. ”
He narrates his journey, their comradeship, their fear, their daily survival. Their small joys often centred around food, their occasional escape, a mild wound or a leave pass and thoughts of how they might ever continue a life other than this if ever there is a peacetime. It is something few can imagine and most don’t want to, it isn’t relevant.
On one of his infrequent visits home, Baumer tries to understand what has changed.
“They talk too much for me. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this. They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with words, yes that is it – they feel it, but always with only half of themselves, the rest of their being is taken up with other things, they are so divided in themselves that none feels it with his whole essence; I cannot even say myself exactly what I mean.”
The longer war rages, the further away from their past the young men become, they find solace in each other and even begin to miss the front when they are on leave, as they are no longer the youth they were and those that know them now are not here.
The author was himself a German solider who survived the war, became a teacher and a writer, but when in 1933, his works were banned and publicly burned on the initiative of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels he and his wife left Germany to live in Switzerland. All Quiet on the Western Front had been published at a similar time to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the two narratives were polar apart. The moment Germany elected Hitler to power, he went after Remarque. Sadly, it was his sister who paid the price, convicted of undermining morality as her brother was beyond reach. She was beheaded in 1943.
I read this on Armistice Day, 11 November, the day that an armistice was signed in France between the Allies and the Germans in 1918, commemorating the end of hostilities in WW1.
Although it is fiction, it reads like a true account. It is a remarkable book, sharing both the physical and mental aspects of youth at war and their slow realisation of its personal consequences.
It is tragic, sad and true and there is an element of hopelessness, that even though we can come to understand what will happen to those affected by war, there is little to be done to prevent it, we as humanity continue to choose it as a method of punishment disguised as a weapon of peace.