The French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe spoke eloquently, and from the heart, this week when he drew forth the words of Erich Maria Remarque to speak of the death and sacrifice of soldiers on the Western Front.
Remarque, who fought for Germany during WWI, a decade after the war ended, wrote what quickly became a classic, All Quiet on the Western Front. Philippe quoted from the book: “He is entirely alone now with his little life of 19 years, and cries because it leaves him.”
Philippe observed: “Coming here, seeing this centre and tower, looking at the names of the 11,000 Australians who died for France and for freedom, I could not help thinking of the terrible loneliness which these thousands of young Australians must have felt as their young lives were cut short in a foreign country.
Remarque did not know it at the time, but a casualty of his work was his sister Elfriede.
“A foreign country. A faraway country. A cold country whose earth had neither the colour nor texture of their native bush. A faraway, foreign country which they defended, inch by inch, in Fromelles in the Nord region, in Bullecourt in Pas-de-Calais and of course here, in Villers-Bretonneux. As if it were their own country.”
Remarque left his own country, first for Switzerland and then, in 1939, to the US. Before that he had seen the rise of Nazism, his books burned and banned.
On arriving in New York, he said of the rise of another war: “I would like to tell you in a few sentences what I think of the war, but I can’t. I think there is no reason in the whole world for any war, think what you will. This will not be a war on the front. It will be a war on women and children.”
Paul Baumer, the protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front, says: “I see how peoples are set against one another and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.”
Remarque did not know it at the time, but a casualty of his work was his sister Elfriede. In 1943, she was arrested in Germany and found guilty of subverting the war effort by believing, and fomenting that belief, that it was lost. With Erich no longer able to be prosecuted (the court judge declaring, “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach, you, however, will not escape us.”), she was the next best thing. She was beheaded. Remarque did not learn of her fate until 1946.
All Quiet on the Western Front was but half of the story Remarque told of WWI. His less well-known, but just as powerful sequel, was The Road Back. It deals with that time of stillness, the emptiness within the soldier, who after being told to kill, returns to peacetime and expected to fit back in.
It is a trauma all soldiers from all wars experience.
Remarque expresses a universal anguish by having a character declare:
“Do you think then that four years killing can be wiped off the brain with the flabby word ‘Peace’ as with a wet sponge.”
When a former comrade is before court, a colleague jumps up and shouts to the officials:
“Disorder is it? Then whose fault is that? Yours I say! You, everyone one of you, should stand before our tribunal! It is you, with your war who have made us what we are! Lock us away too, with him, that’s the safest thing to do. What did you ever do for us when we came back? Nothing, I tell you! Nothing! You wrangled about ‘Victory’! You unveiled war memorials! You spouted about heroism and you denied your responsibility!
“You should have come to our help, But no, you left us alone in that worst time of all, when we had to find a road back again. You should have proclaimed it from every pulpit, you should have told us so when we were demobilised; again and again you should have said to us: ‘We have all grievously erred!’ We have all to find the road back again! Have courage! It will be hardest for you, you left nothing behind you that can lead you back again! Have patience!’ You should have shown us again what life is. You should have taught us to live again. But no, you left us to stew in our juice. You left us to go to the dogs. You should have taught us to believe again in kindliness, in order, in culture, in love! But instead you started again to falsify, to lie, to stir up more hatred and to enforce your damned laws.”
One day’s observance is never the whole story.
By the novel’s end, however, there is a ray of hope: “One part of my life was given over to the service of destruction, it belonged to hate, to enmity, to killing. But life remained in me. And that in itself is enough, of itself, almost a purpose and a way.”
This is regeneration of the soul. It is a huge task of both reconciliation and determination. Siegfried Sassoon, in his diary entry for November 11, 1918, the day was proclaimed over, wrote:
“I got to London about 6.30 (from Oxford) and found masses of people in streets and congested Tubes, all waving flags and making fools of themselves – an outburst of mob patriotism. It was a wretched wet night, and very mild. It is a loathsome ending to the loathsome tragedy of the last four years.”
A week earlier, Wilfred Owen was killed in action. His mother received the news on Armistice Day, as the bells were pealing victory.
Remarque kept writing after the world wars, as did Sassoon, and while the guns were silent, there always remained the private battles within the mind, silently fought. Vets know this to this day, whether it be the fields of France, the field of Vietnam or the sands of Afghanistan.
One day’s observance is never the whole story.Main image: A German first edition of All Quiet on the Western Front