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There is nothing quiet about the Western Front

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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.

Erich Maria Remarque

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.

[box]Main image: A German first edition of All Quiet on the Western Front[box]

8 responses to “There is nothing quiet about the Western Front

  1. A wonderful and thought provoking piece of writing. Thankyou. The Prime Minister of France stole the air from the room, as hundreds turned up to pay lip service to tragedy while celebrating again the ‘mateship’ and prowess that now needed interactive celebration. He truly remembered, the 11,000 lost nearby so far from a decent, happy life. So much to respect, to cherish, to rue, and nothing to celebrate then or now. Thank god for grown up Prime Ministers.

  2. Kahlil Gibran said: “Nobody commits a crime unless it is the will of the people”. So here we are saying again and again war is a terrible thing and doing nothing about it. Seventy percent of Aussies were against the Iraq war but still we supported it. How come? Well, we allowed and individual to decide the issue without reference to cabinet let alone parliament. And hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths later we voted him back into parliament. So here we are again bleating, we have to support the yanks because they saved us before and will save us again. Will God ever forgive us?

  3. Brilliant speech. We were exposed as monolingual also. French PM spoke in French and English, NZ rep spoke in Maori and English and sang their National Anthem in Maori and English.

  4. And I am just now reading Brecht (for Beginners) but his Wikipedia entry draws on the same attitude he, too, like Remarque and Sassoon and Owen and others who from experience denounced war and the politicians who glory in its goriness and khaki with pious ideologically-tainted platitudes. Referring to – as some have properly identified as the old lie – “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (a quote from Horace) – aged only 18 and almost expelled from school because of his perspective – “Whether it comes in bed or on the field of battle, death is always painful. It’s only the empty-headed who talk about laying down their lives and they are the first to run as soon as death approaches.” He could easily have said that those forced to enlist and fight are not generally those jingoistic urging politicians setting the war agenda – they and their sons/offspring are generally well-protected (if officers – not in the field) and/or far away. The most despicable curs of all. If they were not we would have new rules of “wartime” engagement – the politicians themselves in the ring – to fight it out with fists or with words – up to them – but not up to the young people THEY otherwise sacrifice to the weapons industries from which they generally also draw their dividends! No wonder Chrissy Pyne and Malcolm Trembler are sprucing up Australia as a major weapons manufacturer. Hideousness upon hideousness. Can we swap MT for Édouard Philippe I wonder? Please France! Oh, and the Remarque books from Im Western Nichts Neues onwards – translator – the Great War Australian hero – Arthur Wesley WHEEN. All Quiet on the Western Front – 1928.

    1. Arthur Wheen wrote to his wife about the “obscenity” and “pornography” of ‘All Quiet-‘:

      “The way the reviews tend to speak of German grossness annoys me a bit. I should not mind compiling some of British ditto for their edification. They wont admit that the bestiality was wherever war was. Saints at war would be a title. There are things still to be told that Remarque did not tell that would make their tears forever flow. But it would take guts and ruin the writer very probably. Good bye. God keep you in my love.”

      1. When Arthur wrote to his wife (18.4.29) I think that he was acknowledging that if he wrote the truth he would be reviled.

  5. I guess we need to thank the education departments of the various state governments for keeping ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and the poets of the Great War so prominent in our collective cultural consciousness.
    But when comparing Remarque’s work with that of the British poets, keep in mind that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is a book which Germans over 30 may or may not have read (and younger Germans may never have heard off); and also keep in mind that Germans don’t understand the Australian and British obsession with WW1; and of course most Germans would not know what to make of our Cult of the ANZAC and our obsession with our fallen soldiers from long-ago wars in foreign countries (see the Boer War memorial erected in Anzac Parade in Canberra last year).
    During the last 20 years or so while Australia was preoccupied with creating this strange backwards-looking Cult; Germany was busy re-examining its own past and the causes of Nazism and finally confronting the old lies built up around ‘we didn’t know about it’ and ‘we were only following orders’ – see the two exhibitions about the role of the Wehrmacht in war crimes (between the years 1995-2004); the report detailing the role German diplomats played during the Nazi years and afterwards (commissioned by Joschka Fischer in 2005 and released in 2010); or the NS-Documentation Centre in Munich (opened in 2015). Compare these measures with the Australian National War Memorial and its boss currently lobbying for $500 million so they can better display all of their weapons of death and destruction.
    The horror experienced by soldiers in war, and their on-going suffering as veterans is to be condemned and they should receive all the support they need – but if I look at Australia and Germany over the last 20 years, I see one country with its collective self-awareness firmly buried in the past and I see another country truly examining the causes of extremism and war while looking forward into the future to prevent it happening again.

  6. Thanks Warwick for providing some sobriety amidst the hubris of misguided nationalism and triumphalism.

    There is nothing glorious about war. Australia should never have been involved in WW1.

    While we should always remember those foot soldiers that died, the ‘Masters of War’ often avoid accountability and deserve little more than our contempt.

    If there is a defining story of Australians at war it is surely to be found on the Thai-Burma railway, during WW2, (our only war of defense), where Australian prisoners of war demonstrated egalitarianism, true courage and compassion for one another.

    There were earlier, colonial wars of defence in this country that remain to be acknowledged.

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