Astoundingly, Amazon only carries electronic versions of Cliffs Notes and study guides of this essential twentieth-century classic. For those whose Deutsch does not pass muster, please consider reading it in hard copy.
Completed: March 8, 2012 (#17)
Recommendation: A classic bestseller, as universally bewegend in English as in the original
Before Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” there was a Lost Generation, a generation that was “destroyed” by war, even where it managed to escape the shells:
Dieses Buch soll weder eine Anklage noch ein Bekenntnis sein. Es soll nur den Versuch machen, über eine Generation zu berichten, die vom Kriege zerstört wurde – auch wenn sie seinen Granaten entkam.
Something on the order of 2 million German soldiers died during the First World War, together with 4 million wounded, often disfigured in grotesque ways that had not previously been known to warfare. Using a rough, back of the envelope calculation based on vaguely trustworthy Wikipedia numbers, almost ten percent of the total German population (or twenty percent of the male population) may thus be described as a casualty of the Great War. As in most wars, casualties were concentrated among men aged from 18 to 40. Considering the further geographic concentration that afflicted units formed around the regional origin of volunteers or conscripts, it is unsurprising that Hemingway’s “Lost” Generation became a zerstört generation in German eyes.
Remarque’s episodic novel follows the lives and ultimate extinction of one small unit of German infantrymen in the trenches of the Great War. Although narrated in the first person by a young soldier named Paul Bäumer, the pronoun used most frequently is wir, not ich, as though an entire aggrieved generation were addressing the reader from beyond the grave, calling attention to its long-forgotten and insufficiently photogenic sufferings in the trenches of Passchendaele and Verdun.
If Remarque’s depiction of such now standard-issue vignettes as “soldier reacting to loss of his comrade,” “soldier at home on leave,” “soldier relating to war hawks who are ignorant of what is truly happening on the front,” or “soldier thinking that wars should be fought by leaders rather than simple folk” seem trite and well-worn to the contemporary reader, the fault lies less with Remarque than with the myriad screenwriters who have rendered this novel an homage sans attribution in numerous anti-war pictures over the years subsequent to its original publication in 1929. (It isn’t Beethoven’s fault that you listen to his Ninth Symphony too frequently, nor does that make the piece a cliché.)
Today, our political discourse is impoverished by an over-reliance on the lessons of the Second World War or, in the parochial case of Americans, the Vietnam War. These two poles bound every debate on war or foreign policy, as though every discussion stood to benefit from a well-timed analogy to one of these conflicts. The commencement of operations in any theater is immediately greeted with hand-wringing over “quagmires,” to which the inevitable response is Chamberlain and “Munich.” The reductio ad Hitlerum, of course, continues to deform all political debate in the Western world, a recent drawn-from-life example being: “The attachment of covenants and conditions to the Greek bailout package is tantamount to the establishment of a Fourth Reich.” The Reader will surely be familiar with one of the many lazy formulations of this argument.
A Superfluous Man proposes that greater appreciation and understanding of the Great War would add a valuable dimension to our thinking about war and warfare. Appreciation for Remarque’s art does not compel acceptance of the pacifist cause. It is simply, and regrettably, the case that raison d’état on occasion requires that nations put young men to the trials that Bäumer and his cohort faced, although the abattoir that was the First World War pushes this argument close to (and perhaps beyond) its breaking point. Remarque’s work penetrates beneath the anti-war tropes and home-front slogans to arrive at something of the true sufferings inflicted by war and, as such, is an essential read, if a sobering one.