Honor, War I, political figures realized the isolation
May 13, 2019
Honor, bravery, camaraderie, heroism, patriotism. These are terms which have come to be synonymous to the soldiers of war. Novelists, film directors and various other mediums serve us information on this topic that has been tactfully manipulated, riddled with romance and thrill to extract this sentiment from us. In truth, WWI is shrouded in artificial idealism and misplaced loyalty as a by-product of the political games played in the name of Nationalism. An ideal referred to some as a “will to war” (McCafferty, Caitlan 2008). Praying on the naiveté of their populace, political leaders drove into the fabric of every individual an ideology that one’s first loyalty was owed to one’s nation, and that one’s overall identity was predominantly determined by that of their national identity.
Our history books, are no less guilty in perpetuating this misrepresentation of the Nationalist ideals and the horrors that occurred as a consequence. These texts lack the human angle, where one can find the emotional weight every detail of the war carried and appreciate the toll they took on every soldier; focusing more on the dates, the facts and their objective to remain concise.
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All Quiet on the Western Front comes to unmask these issues from the onset, “It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” (Remarque 1928, p. 1). Where our textbooks fall short, Erich Maria Remarque steps in to deliver a first-person narrative of a soldier’s view on Nationalism as a naïve, idealistic child, to a man, broken by the atrocities of the warfront and the harsh realization of the betrayal.
Remarque reveals a darker side of the unification of WWI. He unveils the true face of nationalism in pre-war Europe, the toll this hypocritical ideology takes on a soldier’s identity while in the trenches, and finally, how it eventually results in a thorough resentment of his own leaders.
In the years leading up to World War I, political figures realized the isolation amongst their people and sprung on the opportunity to unify a nation under an ideal of their choosing. Experiencing this sense of unification, countries began to rally and assemble under wrongful pretenses, albeit unknowingly. This directly led to the declaration of WWI, “Nationalism, too, contributed to both leaders’ and civilians’ willingness to go to war. This feeling of love for one’s own country and hate for enemy countries grew more and more popular as international tensions mounted.” (Shen, Elana. “Causes of World War I.”).
Remarque attempts to show the depth of which this intended ignorance gripped this era of Europe, through the introduction of the boys’ schoolteacher, Kantorek. Self-righteous and politically brainwashed, Kantorek romanticizes the idea of being a soldier on the warfront, using patriotic rhetoric like “iron youth” to embolden his susceptible students, despite having never fought himself.
Kantorek embodies the entire elder generation of WWI Europe. All were ready to sacrifice their children and family for a cause they were brainwashed into believing was justified. Even parents furthered the nonsense that one’s primary loyalty was owed to their country and its leaders, clearly seen, “… But no one could very well stand out, because at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word “coward””. (Remarque 1928, p. 7).
This was all the boys knew as young adults. A strong belief that Nationalism was the epitome of purpose and there was nothing more noble or heroic than for them to join this movement.
Kantorek is eventually drafted and is a terrible soldier, reflecting the hollowness and irrelevance of the ideals that he and the older generation pushes.
This leads to how, once exposed, this fabricated nationalism thoroughly tears apart the identity of a soldier. Brimming with patriotism and visions of glory, the soldiers in Remarque’s narrative get their taste of life on the front. “But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. . . The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.” (Remarque 1928, p. 7). There is an abrupt realization that the trenches are no place for the lofty ideals they had been stuffed with, that soldiers on the front fight not for the glory of their nation, but rather for their own survival; they kill to keep from being killed.
This uproots what they considered to be their identity, as these nationalistic ideals was their purpose. “And 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 1928, p. 8), and thus begins the ebbing of their selfhood.
The deterioration of the soldiers’ identity is seen throughout this narrative, first through the Russian prisoners who Paul connects to through the symbolic “universal language” of music, showing a desire to disassociate himself from who he is, and again through characters such as Gérard Duval, the French soldier whom Paul has killed. After killing Gérard, Paul says, “Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (Remarque 1928, p. 121). He is unable to reconcile what makes this man his enemy, or why he would bring himself kill for a few powerful he has no allegiance to.
Remarque symbolizes this thought via Paul killing the Frenchman in the only place in Europe not claimed by any country, the no-man’s-land. A nod to this severe destruction of selfhood.
Subsequent to this loss of identity, All Quiet on the Western Front illustrates the response soldiers have to uncovering the true face of Nationalism; the resentment toward all those who pushed it upon them. The resentment in this storyline begins with Kantorek, blaming him for Joseph Behm’s untimely death, bitter that the teacher failed to recognize that none of his proud ideals offer physical or emotional protection or any form of comfort in the heat of battle. Kantorek and his lectures are recounted throughout the novel, appalling Paul and his friends as they think of them; “While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards— they were very free with all these expressions.” (Remarque 1928, p. 8). Their experience on the front has made them angry at those they once considered their caretakers.
As the narrative continues, this resentment progresses into one where Paul and his friends no longer consider the opposing armies to be their true enemies; their enemies are the men in power in their own nation, who have sacrificed them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory. This too is seen when Paul converses with the dead French soldier, addressing him as “comrade”. He refers to himself and Gérard Duval as “we” and “us,” and those in power as “they”, a refusal to associate himself with his nation.
To conclude, as students, the credulous children were filled, by their politically brainwashed teacher, with unfounded ideas of who they are and where their duties lie. Having full trust in their superiors they were quick to be pushed into joining the cause; “During drill-time Kantorek gave us long lectures until the whole of our class went, under his shepherding, to the District Commandant and volunteered.” (Remarque 1928, p. 7).
After enlisting, the soldiers soon understand the nationalistic ideology as a political tool used by those in power to rally their unknowing public to join as pawns on their hunt for global status. This understanding results in an annihilation of selfhood. The soldiers no longer understand why they are killing the opposing soldiers, most of whom they have more in common with than the men who have sent them to their deaths.
This leads to a fierce resentment. First of their teacher for pretending to understand life on the battlefield, then a resentment of their own nation, viewing their political leaders as the true enemy.
Remarque’s work in All Quiet on the Western Front comes to fill in the personal and emotional gaps our history books have left untouched. He masterfully shows the soldiers’ idealistic view of Nationalism before enlisting, the lie it reveals itself to be amidst the trenches, as well as the toll this revelation took on the very soul of the soldiers on the front. An understanding that is virtually impossible to extract from our other sources of history.
Remarque, Erich Maria 1928. All Quiet on the Western Front: A Novel
McCafferty, Caitlan. “Loyalty, Aggression, and Nationalism.”
Shen, Elana. “Causes of World War I.” http://roundtable.menloschool.org/issue15/2_Shen_MS_Roundtable15_Summer_20132.pdf