“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
Can writing about war be beautiful? The way war is described through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a German soldier in World War I, can be considered prose and poetry. It is awful stuff, but the descriptions cast the sorrow into the reader’s soul and the reader is standing there right with him.
I lived near Kansas City for a few years and visited the National World War I Museum while I was there. I learned so much about that war that I never knew before. Most haunting were the mock trenches that showed the conditions the soldiers on both sides fought in. I put All Quiet on the Western Front on my to-read list back then and have finally read it. I do wish I had made the time to read it sooner. I had thought it was a non-fiction book, but it is fiction. However, the author was himself a soldier in World War I and seems to put some of his own experiences in the book, maybe as a type of personal therapy.
Paul is only 20 years old when he joins the Army with several of his classmates under the influence of their teacher. They train together and several of them end up in a unit together. Paul describes battles, wounds, waiting, the jokes, the good times and the grief that war brings. His youth is being stolen from him. How can he go back to a normal life after seeing and experiencing such horrors? He even gets some leave to go home, but just barely manages to keep old interactions normal.
This is a must-read for anyone high school age or older, especially when studying World War I. It gives an insightful view into the world of a young soldier and how much battle scars a soul for life. If you’re an adult and haven’t read this book yet, do read it soon.