Friday, March 1, 2013

Great Authors: Erich Maria Remarque Part One

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...   
You can drink and forget and be glad,   
And people won’t say that you’re mad;   
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country   
And no one will worry a bit.

                                      --Siegfried Sassoon

  Every writer has somewhere a small collection of cherished books--authors whose influence runs deep. I firmly believe that books find their way into our lives at certain times to inspire us. One of the life changing times that put me on the path to studying history was in the 8th grade. I was living in Stockholm at the time, attending The International School learning history from Mrs. Carol Adamson. She was a kindly and learned woman who cared deeply about her convictions against war. I'll never forget her.

  She read us a passage from Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.  I still remember the passage (see below). Decades later I still regard that novel as one of the greatest books ever written. Remarque served on the western front with the German army and later became a teacher. He wrote his epic novel in 1927. The Nazis banned his book and would have arrested Remarque but he was living in Switzerland. His sister Elfriede was arrested and tried by the Nazis in 1943 for opposing the war. Found guilty by one of Hitler's "People's Courts" she was executed. Remarque and his wife emigrated to the United States in 1947 and became citizens although he returned to Switzerland in 1949 where he spent the rest of his life. 

Remarque in Davos, Switzerland, 1929.

"Erich Maria Remarque is in many ways the quintessential twentieth-century man. Caught between the intense nineteenth-century nationalism of his youth and the dissolution and despair brought on by World War I, Remarque embodies the psychological and existential dilemmas of his generation." 

                                                                                       --Marvin J.Taylor, New York University.

  In this  passage, the story's central character, Paul Baumer is recovering from wounds received on the battlefield and is assigned to a hospital behind the lines. I wonder how many young men (and women) who have suffered in our recent wars feel exactly the same way?

On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the kidneys, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realizes for the first time in how many places a man can get hit...

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

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. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;--it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

...To be Continued...

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