Thursday, 26 November 2009

83 - 'Der Weg Zurück' by Erich Maria Remarque

In one of my recent posts, I talked about my experiences with German literature, but I probably didn't start quite at the beginning. In fact, as mentioned in an even earlier post, my experiences with German history began earlier, when I was studying Germany for my twentieth-century history class. A lot of the interest I have in German literature today stems from the reading I did at that time about the two World Wars and the events of the inter-war period.

When it comes to books about World War 1, one of the stand-out pieces of literature is Erich Maria Remarque's 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' (translated into English as 'All Quiet on the Western Front'), a book I reread last year. As a teenager, the title always confused me (until I found out it had been written by a German) as I couldn't work out where the British Army's Western front could have been during World War 1 (were we fighting the Welsh?!). Of course, this book relates the experiences of a young German soldier, Paul Bäumer, who skilfully sketches out what life was really like in the trenches.

'Der Weg zurück', although not a sequel in the strictest sense (unlikely for obvious - and heart-breakingly sad - reasons), continues the topic covered in the earlier novel, following another soldier from Bäumer's troop, Ernst Birkholz, from war to peace. As the 11th of the 11th finally arrives, the shattered and defeated German troops finally leave the mud and death of the trenches behind and make the way back (der Weg zurück) to Germany. However, the long-awaited cessation of hostilities and the break-out of peace do not take things back to normal, and before long Ernst and his 'Kameraden' are left wondering what is left for them back at home.

The title has a double meaning as the soldiers are seeking a way back not only literally (to Germany and their hometowns) but also metaphorically: after years of war, they attempt to fit back into their old lives. Unfortunately, this proves to be considerably more difficult than they had imagined. Smothered by families unable to understand what their sons and brothers actually went through in the trenches, patronised by teachers who expect the battle-hardened war machines to go back to being good little schoolboys, despised by patriotic politicians (who never went to war) for their lack of enthusiasm for songs of glory and revenge: eventually the soldiers return to the only support they feel they can trust in - their fellow soldiers.

Yet even here, things are not as they were. Where life in the trenches depended on one's ability to function under pressure and kill or be killed, back in peace-time Germany social status (worth nothing in Flanders) begins to rear its ugly head. Men who were afraid to talk to certain of their colleagues, in awe of their presence and 'warcraft', now look down upon those they previously venerated, money, education and status replacing calm under pressure and the ability to lob grenades accurately into a column of advancing British soldiers.

The tight-knit group of friends starts to crumble as they find different ways to cope with post-war life. Some choose marriage; some throw themselves into work; some take advantage of the chaotic political and legal situation to advance themselves either socially or financially; however, others are unable to cope and, after struggling to understand what they had been fighting for, succumb to their depression...

Just as in 'Im Westen Nichts Neues', Remarque has sketched here a remarkable portrait of what was happening on the German side of the war; the big difference in this book though is that it is highly political. The book was written in 1930/31, when Germany was once again beginning to think about 'The Great War' and justify steps to remedy the 'injustice' done to the country by the Treaty of Versailles. Near the end of the book, as Ernst and a few of his friends are relaxing in a meadow, a group of boys led by a scout leader (or Führer...) march by, dropping to the floor and pretending to blow the unsuspecting rabbits and bluebirds away with their walking sticks, temporarily metamorphosed into rifles. As one of the characters rightly pointed out earlier in the novel, "it's all happening again"...

Sadly, as we know, Remarque's comments were prescient. Hitler's elevation to President was only a couple of years away - as was the infamous burning of books in Berlin, at which both 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' and 'Der Weg Zurück' were condemned to the flames. Within a decade of the writing of this novel, the German people had once again plunged Europe (and most of the World) into a catastrophic, crippling war, which was to produce (amongst other things) its own generation of misfits unable to return to society.

Together, these two books tell the tale of what really happens at war and what effects it has on those who fight them when they finally come home. Over the past few decades, we have slowly come to understand more about the horrors of combat and rehabilitation. In Vietnam, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan... wherever there is bloodshed, there is misery and a generation of broken people. The sad thing is that despite the information left for us by Remarque almost eighty years ago, we still struggle to understand the problems soldiers have when they try to find their way back home.