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World War I through Literature
By Thomas Richardson
Historical events are captured, recorded, and interpreted in numerous ways. Primarily remembered in academic fields, history is emanated through popular culture as well. Films, TV shows, plays, books, and artwork tell the story behind some of history’s most significant events and people.
For World War I, the preeminent example is arguably Erich Maria Remarque’s seminal work, All Quiet on the Western Front. The story follows a group of German youth who eagerly joined the army after being inspired by the rallying cries of glory and national pride.
The central protagonist, Paul Baumer, experiences the harshness of trench warfare, filthy conditions, constant attacks, and the imminent threat of death looming over his comrades. Veterans like Katczinsky and Tjaden show Baumer and the fresh recruits Kemmerich, Behm, Muller, and Kropp how to survive and adapt to military life, but they slowly die one by one. Scarred by his wartime experiences and disillusioned by the naiveté of those back home, Baumer loses all care for life and feels emptiness with all his departed friends.
The intimacy with which Remarque writes is a window into memories from his service in the German Army. In the summer of 1917, he was conscripted and served with the 2nd Guards and later the 15th Infantry on the Western Front. Only a month later, he was severely wounded and spent the remainder of the war in a hospital.
Years afterwards he worked a variety of jobs to support his writing, but he never forgot the war. In 1929, he published All Quiet on the Western Front, which quickly became a best-seller on the international market. Despite the success, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels labeled it as slanderous and placed it alongside other banned books. It, too, sat on the pyre of burning books during the rise of Nazism in the late 1930s. Remarque and his family fled Germany for Switzerland and eventually became naturalized U.S. citizens after World War II.
Remarque showed that in World War I, the soul and optimistic outlook on life could be shattered by cataclysmic events. The loss of life became so commonplace that soldiers eating and sleeping with death found it only natural, not tragic. Warfare changed so dramatically and the glorious fervor that once accompanied the pride of the military was dashed by the awful reality Baumer, Kropp, Tjaden, Katczinsky, and Muller faced every day.
It’s quite possible Remarque knew comrades just like them, but now they were long gone.
Like Baumer says at the end, “I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can’t take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear.”
Thomas Richardson works for the National Archives and Records Administration. In graduate school, he taught U.S. history and world geography. He also worked on the World War II veterans’ oral history project at the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Thomas volunteers with the Midwestern History Association helping with their social media outreach as a contributing editor. He lives in St. Louis and spends much of his time with the Scottish St. Andrew Society.