Saturday, 12 April 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Nothing new on the Western Front

This year marks the centenary of World War One, perhaps the deadliest conflict mankind has ever experienced.  The impact of 'the Great War' is still felt today and many people in Europe and around the world, still have personal connections to the war through the stories of their grandparents or even their parents, many of whom lost loved ones, during this terrible chapter of human history.

This year will be the start of a four-year period of commemoration, discussion and reflection.  It's generally acceptable, in the early 21st century, to criticise the raison d'etre of World War One and most people will recognise the insanity of the seemingly purposeless devastation wrought on Europe and other parts of the world between 1914 and 1918.  Nevertheless there is a definite consensus, certainly here in England, about the need to respect and commemorate the 'fallen' soldiers of the 'Great War' and of other wars, in general, including more current ones.

I'm anti-war. I just don't believe in wars and see any war anywhere as a tool of the powerful against the powerless and, quite often these days, as a very cynical way of propping up business and the capitalist system.  Wars cause unnecessary loss of life and destruction, in the name of causes which are generally meaningless.  Whilst most people can now see this, in relation to World War One - it's harder to hold this conviction when talking about World War Two and the Nazis, Europe's 'darkest hour', in the words of Winston Churchill.  For me, it's quite straightforward - the two World Wars were really one 'Great war' with a short interval of peace - you can't be against one and for the other.

Richard Thomas in the 1979 movie version
As part of my research on Nordrhein-Westfalen, I decided to read Erich Maria Remarque's influential novel of 1929, Im Westen nichts Neues (In the West, nothing new), better known in English by the title All Quiet on the Western Front.  Like many people of my generation, I grew up with a 'knowledge' of this novel and, more specifically, the title/phrase, although I'd never read the novel or seen either of the movies.  To be honest, I was really surprised to learn that the novel was written by a German ex-soldier.

Remarque was born into a working-class family in Osnabruck, Westphalia and, having been conscripted into the German army, he had first-hand experience of fighting on the Western Front in 1917.  It's become such a part of our culture and language, that I just assumed the story must be told from a British/American viewpoint.

And what a fantastic novel it is!  Wow!  If you read anything this year, it has to be this book.  And such a good time to read it, with all the commemorations and discussions that are going on.  It's an easy read, the language and imagery are powerful, beautiful and resonate long after you finish reading.  I also strongly agree with Remarque's anti-war message, his recognition of the basic humanity that we all share and the absurdity of killing people you've not even met and know very little about.

In an age of modern technology, where warfare happens at the click of a button or on a TV screen far removed from the comfort of your own home, it's hard to understand the reality of war unless you're living in a war zone.  It might sound incredibly cynical, but one thing the 'Great War' taught Europeans is that it's better to conduct wars somewhere else and not destroy your own nation's economy and social infrastructure.  The experience of war for most people in 'the West' in the 21st century is at a distance (both physically and conceptually), abstract, difficult to relate to.

The characters in Remarque's novel don't really know why they are fighting against the French and the British.  The reasons for the war are fairly abstract and the young men in the trenches don't really understand why the war started in the first place or what it is they are supposed to be fighting for.  They are mostly there out of a sense of peer loyalty, because they want to stick by their classmates and do what is expected of them.  Their motivation isn't really to kill other young men or burn down French villages, but to protect their comrades, families and villages.

Lew Ayres playing Baumer in the 1930 movie
Whilst the old men at home pore over maps and get excited about strategies, the young men experience the reality of war - the blood, shit, fear and the screaming of injured horses and dying men.  There is a lot of anger in the book, about the opportunities that the young men have lost, about their interrupted education and the way the war changes them, so they can never regain the comfort of civilian life.

Even Remarque's young men mostly see the enemy at a distance - modern warfare means aircraft shelling, poison gas and snipers.  They rarely come face-to-face with the 'enemy'.  Remarque personalises the experience of war in a very powerful scene where the main character, Bäumer, finds himself in a bomb hole with a French soldier.  Bäumer stabs the French soldier out of fear, but later regrets his actions and laments the fact 'that we're all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain'

Bäumer's experience could be that of any soldier anywhere, but it's significant that this novel was written by the 'enemy', a German soldier, one of those who was surely raping Belgian nuns and eating Belgian children? Looking at anti-German propaganda, one hundred years later, it's easy to see through the hysteria and hyperbole.  Of course, it's much more difficult to see through propaganda when the war is happening during your lifetime, only retrospect can give us a truly sober perspective on the information being fed to us by our media and government.

Poster advertising 1930 movie
I also watched the two movie versions of the novel - the one made in 1930, directed by Lewis Milestone, as well as the made-for-TV film of 1979, starring Richard Thomas (a.k.a. John Boy from The Waltons).  I'm surprised that there is no German movie based on this novel and it makes me wonder how popular or well-known Remarque's work is in Germany?  Not surprisingly, Remarque's anti-war message wasn't very popular in 1930's Germany.  The Nazis stripped him of his German citizenship and he fled to the United States.  Remarque himself had a very interesting life, but that's a whole other blog post!

I loved the original movie of 1930 - it's a work of art in itself and the director captured the most important concepts (such as the scene around the young woman in the poster).  The 1979 movie was just okay - it told the story quite literally, but seemed to miss out on some of the most important concepts of the book.  Interestingly, the 1930 movie was the first film to be banned in Australia!  World War One was a defining moment in Australian nationhood and Milestone's movie wasn't considered 'on message' enough to be shown to the Australian public.

Being a bit of a Romantic (in the capital letter R/early 19th-century sense!), I'm always fascinated by the portrayal of nature in the books, movies and other art forms that I research.  So I'm leaving you with a wonderful quote from Im Westen nichts Neues which shows Bäumer's (read, any soldier's) relationship with the Earth/nature:

The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else.  When he presses himself to the earth, long and violently, when he urges himself deep into it with his face and his limbs, under fire and with the fear of death upon him, then the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother, he groans out in terror and screams into its silence and safety, the earth absorbs it all and gives him another ten seconds of life, ten seconds to run, then takes hold of him again - sometimes forever. Earth - earth - earth!

Image credits:

The images of the stills from the 1930 and 1979 movie versions of All Quiet on the Western Front are from photos taken by me. These images are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote these movies. By publishing these images, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These images are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to highlight the performances of these actors in these movies. 

The image of the poster for the 1930 version of the movie is in the public domain - you can see more information on its file page on Wikipedia.

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