Criticism of the Romantic Rhetoric of War, Honor, and Patriotism in the Novel All Quiet on the Western Front
Today, after two world wars and numerous more local conflicts that took place throughout the last century and continue to occur even now, the public opinion generally sees war as something terrifying, disgusting, and ugly. Because of the abundance of the photos and videos from the war zones, one can see what the war looks like.
Nonetheless, such vision of the war was not always predominant. At many points during the twentieth century, including the 1910s, the war was regarded as beautiful and sacred. In Germany before and during World War I, massive propaganda spread the chauvinist, nationalist, and militarist ideas, which became dominant once again after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. From this perspective, All Quiet on the Western Front written by Erich Maria Remarque can be seen as an answer to the widespread pro-war discourse and affirmation of the pacifist stance.
The roots of the political propaganda can be found in the rule of Napoleon. He was the first ruler that came to the realization that propaganda and censorship could be used strategically to shape the public opinion and maintain the power (Ther). Later, propaganda became a common weapon that the political leaders used against their people. Also in World War I, propaganda played the significant part in the public discourse. German wartime propaganda in at the home front came in different sorts and included posters, media content, events, and general censorship.
Nonetheless, the crucial aspect of the German propaganda was that the ideas on which it relied were popular long before the war began. Obedience, loyalty, and discipline were seen as the critical virtues in German monarchy at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Social Darwinist and Nationalist ideologies heavily influenced public debate in the country. In the decade before the outbreak of war, the threat was perceived as omnipresent; many stuck to the opinion that only the armed conflict could save the German nation. At the same time, these were not only the politicians who spread such ideology: it was also promoted by artists and intellectuals, such as university professors and school teachers, which is the case in All Quiet on the Western Front. After the German mobilization in 1914, all agents named above maintained their positive stance on the war (Ther). The wartime slogans assured the German soldiers that they are superior and will with no doubt win the war. Whereas in the propaganda posters and postcards the enemies were depicted as caricatures, the image of the German soldier was romanticized.
In fact, before and during World War I, war and military action had been sacralized in Germany. The extent to which war became a matter of common salvation is clear from the words of the German writer, Nobel Prize-winner Thomas Mann, who wrote: “War! It was purification and relief which we felt, and an incredible hope” (Dassen). Not only politicians and intellectual elites justified and glorified the war, but also priests and clergymen in the Christian churches, who claimed that the war had religious nature, and God chose the Germans.
All Quiet on the Western Front can be seen as an answer to the militarist, chauvinistic discourse that sacralized the war and made it a holy duty for every German man. The presence and power of the propaganda become evident already in the first chapter of the book. Although it seems that Paul and his friends joined the war effort out of their wish, in fact, they were too young to have their own opinion on the issue. The students were manipulated by their headmaster, Kantorek, who represents a huge part of the German society—especially well-educated middle and upper classes, who supported the militarist ideology. “… at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word “coward,” states the protagonist. At the same time, he points out, that the city poor as well as German farmers, were mostly against the war: “The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy” (Remarque and Wheen 7). The social pressure that the students experienced is reflected in the following passage:
“For us lads of eighteen, they [“thousands of Kantoreks”] 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 greater insight and more humane wisdom” (Remarque and Wheen 7).
Nonetheless, with impressing mastery, Remarque demonstrates how such vision of the war was destroyed already during the first days at the battlefield. In reality, the war was not the sacred battle between the good and the evil. The war was rather about legs amputated, young soldiers killed, hunger, excrements—total absurdity, which soon becomes evident for Paul and his comrades. Throughout the novel, the war is depicted realistically, just as it is. Of course, such portrayal is disillusioning and refutes all militarist pathos at once. From the first day on the battlefield, the protagonist realizes, that he, just like other soldiers, has been deceived. Remarque writes:
“We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. Also, we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone, and alone we must see it through” (Remarque and Wheen 7).
All in all, All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerful objection to German militarist rhetoric and demonstration of the real face of the war. Remarque managed to deconstruct the propaganda pathos and show, what the war is—the absurd. Taking this into consideration, there is no wonder that All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first books marked as “degenerate” and forbidden by National Socialist Party after it came to power in 1933. This novel was a threat to Nazism, which relied on myths, not on reality. The image of war as of the total horror did not encourage the Germans to join the military effort; it evoked unwelcomed pacifism. Nonetheless, today All Quiet on the Western Front serves as a powerful reminder and a warning, which is, unfortunately, too often ignored by those in power as they choose to pursue their economic interest rather than care for the common good.
Dassen, Patrick. “The German Nation As A Secular Religion In The First World War? About The Problem Of Unity In Modern German History.” Political Religion Beyond Totalitarianism, J. Augusteijn and M. Janse, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Remarque, Erich Maria, and A W. Wheen. “All Quiet On The Western Front.” 1987, http://explainallquietonthewesternfront.weebly.com/uploads/2/4/7/2/24722875/all_quiet_on_the_western_front.pdf.