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.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

Eight stars

LEST WE FORGET

This enthralling novel by Erich Maria Remarque provides the reader with a stellar look at a soldier’s life during the Great War. Told through the eyes of a young German soldier, the story pulls the reader in and personalises events in such a way that it almost seems palatable, without justifying or downplaying the atrocities at any point. All Quiet on the Western Front is sure to stir up emotion in those readers who have an interest in military discussions, as well as those who love war-time history.

This is the story of Paul Bäumer, a nineteen year-old fighting for the German Fatherland in France during the middle of the Great War. Having signed up voluntarily alongside a number of his classmates, Bäumer hoped things would be as exciting as they sounded. All that was dashed after the weeks of basic training, in which the young men are broken down and put through their paces before being tossed on the front lines, where the beauty of nationalism is replaced by the horrors of death. Now, these young men live in constant physical terror as explosions rock their every night.

The story explores the trials and tribulations the war brings to those who witness it first-hand. Bäumerl finds himself fighting to justify his presence in France and tries to survive on poor rations, barely enough for survival. He also witnesses how decimating the war can be, when only a handful of his training class survive after a short stint on the front.

Bäumer is also forced to sober up to the realities of life, which turns sensitivity on its head and permits pragmatism to surface. After a soldier dies in front of them, the fight is on for his supplies, something the surviving soldiers need more than the corpse. This creates a refreshing look at life and the lessons that come with it, leaving manners back in Germany when every day could be your last.

There are moments of harrowing action, as Bäumer accompanies the others to lay barbed wire and finds himself trapped under artillery fire. Scared and pinned down, the men talk about their own thoughts about how the war could be more effectively fought, as well as what might have changed the minds of the politicians who are sitting in their ivory towers, far away from the bloodshed.

When a bloody battle with enemy leads to men being blown apart with severed limbs and torsos, Bäumer sees the most gruesome part of the war, something that he was not told about when first he agreed to serve. Rats feast on the dead and Bäumer expresses a sense of being animalistic, trusting his instincts alone to save him. The casualty list is high and Bäumer tries to erase what he’s seen when he is given leave and encounters a few French girls, eager to help him forget.

Bäumer takes some extended leave to return home for a family visit. He feels like an outsider, unable to discuss his trauma with anyone. His mother is dying of cancer and she hopes that he can be proud of what he is doing, but wants him to come home as soon as possible. This surely pulls on his heartstrings and Bäumer is left to wonder what the fighting will really do, as he cannot be with family when they need him most.

After witnessing the horrors of a prisoner-of-war camp, Bäumer is determined to help bring the war to an end, vowing never to be captured or enslaved by the enemy. The months push onwards and the German army begins to lose control of its fate. Bäumer watches his friends die in combat, eventually leaving him as the only one left from his original class. By the fall of 1918, Paul Bäumer can see the end is in sight and hears much talk about an armistice, which would bring the bloody war to an end, something he’s wanted ever since arriving at the Western Front.

Erich Maria Remarque does a masterful job painting the image of war and how it truly gets into the pores of those who are fighting on the front lines. It is less about strategy and troop advancement than the blood and gore faced by those young men who were pulled from their schools in order to fight for their country. While many in the West see the Germans as the evildoers (in both World Wars), Remarque offers this wonderful look at the war through the eyes of one man, to show that there was nothing but pure fear within him. No matter whose sides was right, young men perished without knowing what they were trying to do. Their task, kill or be killed. Their horror, to be maimed or brutally injured. All this comes to the surface throughout this piece, which will surely shock the attentive reader.

There are many characters whose lives progress throughout the book, though I will not list them. Remarque seeks more to tell a story of the war through their experiences than to inject a deeper plot with the Great War as a backdrop. The horrors of war spill out from every page, as well as the senselessness of men who could barely shave being the pawns of an international political disagreement. This theme is echoed throughout, in twelve strong chapters. While many will likely turn away from the book because they disagree with war or have ‘read too much about it’, I would encourage everyone to give it a try to see just how deeply it affects you. Especially with November 11th just around the corner!

Kudos, Mr. Remarque, for this sensational piece that had me enthralled throughout. It has stirred up some real emotions within me.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

– Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons