Novel * Erich Maria Remarque * Historical Apocalypse * 1929
When we think of an apocalypse, chances are we’re thinking of the proper noun version of the word: The Apocalypse. Even if we’re not thinking in religious terms (which is to say, here comes Jesus!) it’s likely we’re thinking of some world-ending event. A massive comet smacking into Earth and laying waste to everything. Nuclear war. That kind of fun stuff. However, there is nuance to this idea that is lost if we focus specifically on world-ending disasters. Or rather, I suppose, if we focus our attention on future world-ending disasters. The thing is, the world ends more often than one might think. In fact, the word ‘apocalypse’ is itself a tricky word, because it is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘revelation,’ which if you’re familiar with the Biblical Apocalypse that definition suddenly makes sense now. The idea of an apocalypse has evolved, as language does, but really, what is the end of the world but the birth, or revelation, of a new one? Obviously the planet itself has been hanging out for a while, so when we speak of “the end of the world” we’re obviously talking about the end of familiar human society. In extreme cases, that would be the end of humanity, period. Most of the time, though, it’s the end of the known world order, and that’s the kind of apocalyptic event All Quiet on the Western Front is concerned with.
World War I was a real son of a bitch. It was an extremely complicated conflict that for all intents and purposes marked the end of an historical epoch. I don’t have the knowledge, space, or wherewithal to really dig deeply into it, but we’ll touch on a few things as it relates to how we think about the apocalypse. I will point out that Hardcore History has an exhaustively deep series on the subject, and if listening to 20-odd hours of podcasting about the first World War sounds like a thing you might do, I highly recommend it. If you don’t want to do that, I can try to sketch out a brief summary of the state of the world at the time.
There are a few important things to keep in mind about this time period that are unfamiliar to us here in the glittering utopian future. The first is, most of the decision-makers involved in sending their nations to war didn’t really want to do so. However, there was a long-standing history of conflict in Europe and so there were many treaties and agreements between powers. These treaties were intended to prevent conflict, however, when an unforeseen event spurred one country into a war with another, the rest of Europe found themselves in the fray simply by honoring their prior agreements. Another major factor was the role of machinery. Prior to this war, the West had been undergoing vast changes thanks to the Industrial Revolution and a massive growth in both population and technology. The rate of progress is difficult for us to grasp, but not impossible. Remember when cell phones weren’t even a thing? Seems weird, right? Well, in the early 20th century people were getting used to machines that weren’t even conceived of earlier in their lifetime. Cars, electric lights, fucking airplanes. Technological development had for pretty much all of human history been a slow moving thing. Suddenly, it was moving at warp speed, and people had difficulty keeping up. This is a topic that comes up often in late 19th century and early 20th century fiction because technology and science were moving at a rate unprecedented in human history, and society was scrabbling to keep pace. Of course, insofar as this conflict is concerned, this new technology also applied to weaponry, and nobody really knew what to expect. The last major issue is that of nationalism and the idea of total war. Previously European wars were waged by professional soldiers for limited stakes. Now, all of a sudden, there is a massive war raging through the countryside and millions of people are dying and getting blown up and all kinds of other awful things, and the patriotic fervor of the participants obviously started to cool off a bit. World War I might was well be the story of humanity’s mass disillusionment with modernity.
Taking a broad view of the war is one thing, but the problem with an overview is that it loses sight of what was actually happening on the ground. After the war was finally over, Europe was decimated. If such a thing were possible for an entire continent, Europe suffered from some significant post-traumatic stress syndrome. Pretty much everyone alive had a stake in what had happened over those few years of total warefare. Either they were veterans themselves, knew one, or most likely had lost someone close to them. I’m not going to drop numbers on you, because after a certain amount they cease to have any real meaning, but it is not unfair to say that a significant portion of an entire generation of young men were just gone. Not only that, but nobody could really say with any clarity why such a thing happened. All these people dead and, other than viciously crippling Germany and setting the stage for an even larger conflict later, not a whole hell of a lot seemed to have been accomplished. This feeling of emptiness is largely responsible for some great literature, even if most of it doesn’t concern itself directly with the event itself. All Quiet on the Western Front is different, because the only thing the book narrates is the soldier’s experience. It’s enough.
The novel is straightforward, and heartbreakingly simple. The narrative follows a German soldier, Paul, who is stationed on the Western Front, and follows him as he endures life during the war. It’s a first-person account written by a veteran, and simply illustrates his day-to-day life. We learn a little about how these soldiers were trained, what it was like in the trenches, and how quickly life was lost there. It also examines relationships between the men on the Front, their attitudes towards food and death, not to mention their growing disdain for their commanding officers and the higher-ups who were sending everyone to their death. At one point Paul is granted leave and suddenly finds himself surrounded by civilians, and much to his horror finds he can barely deal with them. There is such a gulf of experience between him and the rest of his village that he finds himself almost unable to communicate. Of course, that’s made all the worse by the knowledge that he’d have to go back. Eventually, Paul does go back to the Front and is promptly wounded. Then the reader gets a glimpse of how field hospitals worked. (Guess what? They were terrible!) Meanwhile, one by one, Paul’s comrades are killed. That’s it. That’s the book.
The value in a novel like this is that of empathy, of course. That sense of humanity which is lost in the sheer volume of data about the war can be regained in a first-hand account. All Quiet is casually gruesome when Paul describes the truth of combat, and there is a horrifying episode in which Paul spends the day with the body of a man he killed, crouched down in a shell-hole avoiding the machine-guns. Yet the pervasive theme seems to be that of total disillusionment about the way the world works. Paul explains that his generation of soldiers have no real connection to life:
“Kantorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption. They are able to think beyond it. We, however, have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land.”
If All Quiet on the Western Front can be taken as a common experience among soldiers on both sides, and there is no reason to believe that’s not the case, then such a sentiment is an astounding break with the past. Historically, this plays out. Generation gaps are common, but the gap forced by the outbreak of the first modern war is on another level entirely. In this instance, the world-view held by the older generation, the one that allowed the war to happen, forced a completely different world onto their children. As Paul says, it is the unknown which set them bereft. Likely, the end he mentions is death, but for those who survive that feeling of being lost never really goes away. Also notable is the feeling of generality that pervades that sentiment. He’s not talking about Germany, he’s talking about everyone. This is reinforced later on in some interactions with captured Russian soldiers, when it becomes apparent that the soldiers fighting the war have far more in common with each other than they do with their national authorities. Later, the feeling of being a one-man wasteland only becomes more concrete: “The war has ruined us for everything,” a characters says when discussing the realities of dealing with the unceasing artillery and machine gun fire. Paul agrees and adds:
“He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”
And that’s the apocalypse. World War I changed how the world worked. It changed how people thought. It marked the definitive end of the old empires, and began the shift of power away from ancient notions of government and society. Before things progress to the present day there would be another cataclysm on a global scale, but even that was set into motion by the consequences of this war. Yet all of that is on a macro, global scale. All Quiet on the Western Front is a window into the personal side of apocalypse. It shows the very moment of someone witnessing the revelation, and that the birth of a new world order is pain, and death, and suffering. If a sacrifice was needed to bring about this new modern epoch we find ourselves in, then look no further to this book to get at least the beginning of an understanding of just how much was lost in human terms.