In “All Quiet on the Western Front”, the German novelist portraits war as both inexplicably horrible and surprisingly humane.
Humans are tribal. We like “Us” and we dislike the “Others”. We feel empathy and compassion for our ingroup, but remain cold at the suffering of the outgroup. At the best of times, this tribal tendency is be checked by cosmopolitan education and shared senses of identity. At the worst of times, this tendency leads to racism, xenophobia, and ultimately, to war.
Or so goes one of the most persistent myths in modern psychology.
Like all myths, this myth of ultra-tribal psychology has a seed of truth. Humans are certainly tribal in some sense. We feel at ease in groups. We are scared being ostracize. And sadly indeed, we have many biases that favor those in our groups.
But like all myths, the myth of ultra-tribal psychology is also false. It is a grand narrative, which uses messy material to concoct an epic, yet fictional, story.
Indeed, it is one thing to say that humans are biased to feel more compassion to their compatriots than to strangers. But it is another to say that we only feel hatred towards foreigners.
Few writers have expressed this as well as Erich Maria Remarque. In his masterpiece All Quiet On the Western Front, Remarque depicts war as too complex, too horrific, too brutal, to be a simple outcome of a nation in tribal sentiment.
Naturally, tribal sentiments played a part. Most of Remarque’s characters were classmates, inspired to arms by the war by the nationalist pride of their schoolmaster.
“I can still see him, his eyes shining at us through his spectacles and his voice trembling with emotions as he asked: ‘You’ll all go, won’t you lads?'”
Those who refused were called cowards by their own parents.
“People simply didn’t have the slightest idea of what was coming.”
Indeed, when the curtain opens and the war begins, the boys have little enthusiasm in killing frenchmen. Naturally, the soldiers work as a team. They help protect each other and kill enemies. Choosing between a French and a fellow German soldier, they would certainly kill the French one.
But killing enemies does not come out of a sense of tribal rage. It comes from fear and necessity.
“We are not fighting, we are defending ourselves against annihilation. We are not hurling our grenades against human beings – what do we know about all that in the heat of the moment? – the hands and the helmets that are after us belong to Death himself.”
One of the books longest and most painful scenes depicts the protagonist, Paul Bäumer, hiding in a shell hole in the no-man’s-land. When hearing the steps of French soldiers, he prepares to kill.
“Footsteps hurry by me. The first few. Past me. Then some more. The rattle of the machine-guns becomes continuous. I am just about to turn round a bit when suddenly there is a noise and a body falls on to me in the shell hole, heavily and with a splash, then slips and lands on top of me – I don’t think at all, I make no decision – I just stab wildly and feel only how the body jerks, then goes limp and collapses. When I come to myself again, my hand is sticky and wet.”
When the morning dawns, Paul learns that the enemy is not dead. He moves towards him.
“I lean forward, shake my head and whisper: ‘No, no, no’ and lift up my head – I have to show him I want to help him“
The Frenchman understand. Paul gathers him water from the muddy soil and inspects him.
“There are three stabs wounds. My pack of field dressing covers them but the blood flows out underneath, so I press them down more firmly, and he groans.“
Yet at 3pm, the man dies. Rigged by the pain of the kill, Paul takes the man’s wallet and learns that his victim is a compositor by the name of Gerald Duval.
“Forgive me camarade! We always realize too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, and that our mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain. Forgive me, camarade, how could you be my enemy?”
Overall, Remarque’s novel is empty of a single moment of overt hostility between the supposed enemies. The soldiers eat supper with French women and feel sympathy for the Russian prisoners of war. The real enemy is Death himself. His emissaries are or those who force young boys to live in trenches for reasons they cannot themselves fathom. Indeed, the only instance of rejoiceful violence occurs when the German soldiers beat their fellow officer, the bullyish commander Himmelstoss. (Ironically, this shows the other failure of the myth of ultra-tribal psychology fails: while overemphasizing our tribal hate of the “other”, it also downplays the amount of conflict and disagreement within “us”.)
Overall, Remarque’s portrayal of war is haunting in its brutality, but hopeful in its humanity. His characters can become brute. But they are not brutes because they so desire, but because the very basis of life has been turned against their humanity. At most times, humanity persists. But brutality leaves scars beyond those on the victim’s body.
“Two years of rifle fire and hand-grenades – you can’t just take it all off like a pair of socks afterwards.”
Indeed, you cannot. Today, post-traumatic stress kills over 10 times more US soldiers than do battles. For Remarque’s characters, on the other hand, post-war depression was not an option. Like 10 million real soldiers of the WWI, their bodies were destroyed before they had time to face the trauma.
Luckily, Erich Maria Remarque survived. All Quiet on the Western Front is a testament to the strength of his humanism, which, scarred and limp as it might have become, nevertheless survive its most wicked enemy.
Notes and References
All translations are from Brian Murdoch (Vintage Books 1996).
For data on US veteran suicides, see this paper. (Based on my prior readings, this looks like a conservative estimate.)
The themes in Remarque’s book harken back to claims that most soldiers never shoot to kill. For an informative discussion on this controversial issue, see this thread.