The Road Back (All Quiet on the Western Front #2), by Erich Maria Remarque

Seven stars

Erich Maria Remarque returns with a sequel to his epic Great War novel, exploring life after the armistice is signed and the German soldiers return home. While All Quiet on the Western Front depicted a strong war and ‘behind the trenches’ sentiment, this novel explores more the re-integration of soliders and how their time away served almost as a ‘time gap’ that left them wondering if they took a wrong turn on the journey. Remarque offers apt commentary through his prose to explore the struggles of returning home to settle, vilification by citizens, and trying to move forwards from what was seen on the battlegrounds. An eye-opening piece that complements the series debut well, even if I would not call it a classic.

It took four long and intense years, but the Great War has finally ended, with Germany on the losing side. Ernst and some of his fellow soldiers prepare to return home, hoping that things will go well, but worried about what awaits them. As they arrive, nothing is as it seems, from the tiny houses to the people who are less than eager to engage with them, while the rationale for war seems extinguished. This leaves Ernst wondering if it was a useless fight.

As they try to find their niche, Ernst and his fellow soldiers realise that peace may have been the worst thing for them., They are villains and mocked, Germany suffers dibilitating food shortages, and the political scene is anything but pleasant. Still, Ernst has to believe that the end to the fighting was propitious and strives to find himself in this new Germany. When something unexpected occurs, Ernst has an epiphany and discovers where he belongs in this world of unknowns.

It is always difficult to write a sequel to a highly popular and impactful novel, or so it would seem. Filling the boots of the highly-accliamed All Quiet on the Western Front is tough, to be sure, leaving Erich Maria Remarque in a difficult spot. While the book was surely not as strong or blatantly impactful as its predecessor, Remarque does well to leave the reader thinking and wondering throughout the story. Tales of war should leave the reader wondering things, particularly at this time of year. While the narrative was slow at times and I felt it did need a jolt, I was pleased with the message that resonated from its pages. It is too bad that some readers hold the books next to one another and pan this one for not being like its ‘cousin’. Alas, it is those who see past this superficiality that can truly learn what Remarque is trying to convey.

Ernst was a great protagonist to offer the reader a wonderful message of war and re-integration. I found myself eager to see what he found and his sentiments about returning all those years later. There is a great deal that is discovered by young Ernst, not the least of which being that life was sure never to be the same after the war. The people treated soldiers differently, the sentiment of the country changed a great deal, and the future looked bleak. Ernst does his best to push through this and make his own impact, only to learn that things on the battlefield might have been preferable, at least to a degree.

Remarque is surely a stunning writer in his own right. While I have only read these two books up to this point, the way he depicts the fighting and the societal re-integration left me wanting to know more. I have always enjoyed the politics surrounding the Great War, as well as the fallout for both governments and people from the four year skirmish. Remarque brings all that to light here and provides the reader with something intense and well worth the reader’s time. The narrative is surely not as impactful on a superficial level as the precediing book, but there are some stunning parts where the reader can see into the mind of the returning soldier or the citizen reacting to seeing them. Remarque does this so well and keeps the reader involved in the realisations that come of it. Broken into eight parts, the story shows the evolution of Germany in a post-war world and explores the changes that needed to be made, as well as the sentiments that would fuel the anger that led to the Second World War. I was quite taken by all of this and found myself wanting to learn more when I was able. I will also be checking out some of Erich Maria Remarque’s other books about wartime.

Kudos, Mr. Remarque, for another powerful narrative that left me thinking well past the time I closed the book.

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