11:06:07 AM Jun 13th 2012
"Many of the elements of the narrative correspond to Remarque's own experiences, and the book has strong autobiographic undertones"? This can't be true, surely? As far as I'm aware, Remarque served for about two weeks (15th July - 31st July 1917) in a front-line company (with some earlier military experience during training and building fortifications behind the lines), and was wounded by shrapnel and invalided home. Granted, he did see a close friend die in the manner of Kat, but I don't think this mirrors the book's depictions of battle. It's more likely that the bleak and cynical tone of the novel came from the immediate post-war period in Germany, with an unstable government, occupation, war guilt and an awful economy. At the risk of veering off-topic slightly, I'm of the opinion that a lot of classic WWI material is misinterpreted or taken out of context by modern readers inured to the idea of a ghastly conflict - Ernst Junger's 'Storm of Steel' was written by a stormtroop officer who won Prussia's highest military decoration (the Blue Max) for his actions, which suggests that he was in the thick of it - yet his book glorifies war as a noble undertaking: "Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart" (from the 1929 English edition). Moreover, a lot of people involved in the war felt it to be necessary and right at the time. Siegfried Sassoon, the famous anti-war poet, wrote in his letter to his commanding officer "I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed." Which is not to say that the First World War was not ghastly, poorly-run or that many people were against it, but simply that a more nuanced look is needed, not just knee-jerk reactions and bad history (don't get me started on Blackadder!)
02:29:06 PM Jun 13th 2012
edited by Aquila89
edited by Aquila89
Yeah, sure, a lot of people involved in the war felt it to be necessary and right at the time, and glorified it later. But that's how self-justification works. It's incredibly hard to admit that you served years in the military, you saw your friends die, you killed people and all of it was for nothing. You have to justify it to yourself. And I'm pretty sure that Blackadder had no intention of giving an accurate look at history, and viewers should know that. What next, are you going to complain about the unfair portrayal of Elizabeth I in the second series? By the way, Remarque's next novel (The Road Back) is exactly about the immediate post-war period in Germany.
07:21:47 AM Jul 1st 2012
I have no problem with authors working out their inner demons through literature, but rather with people's uncritical acceptance of that as the 'truth' about the First World War. All Quiet on the Western Front is an excellent book, but how valuable is it as a piece of history? Your mention of self-justification would suggest a definite bias in Remarque's writing - which again is fine for entertainment's sake, but less so for a scholar. My problem with Blackadder is much the same. Again, it's very funny and I enjoy it a lot. And I'm sure the authors never intended it to be an accurate view on life in the trenches. But due to its popularity it's become a lot of people's reference point for the First World War, which I'd argue distorts the conflict. Because it fits a lot of pre-conceived notions, people are less likely to question its historical veracity. Popular fiction really shapes people's views on a subject, especially when it's as emotive as WWI, and I just wish people would be more discerning with their source material, and try and divide the entertainment value from the historical value of a work.
11:28:28 AM Jul 1st 2012
"Your mention of self-justification would suggest a definite bias in Remarque's writing" Why? What I was intending to say that one can make an argument that Remarque can be more honest about the war because he had a small role in it. The more committed you are, the more self-justification you need. Since he didn't do all that much, he could see that the war was pointless. And also, many people felt that the war was neccessary and right, during and after it. But weren't they proven wrong in the end? I mean, the war didn't solve any of Europe's conflicts. To my knowledge, it's generally accepted that one of the main causes of World War II was World War I, or more specifically the treaties after it. So, wasn't World War I a pointless bloodbath? It didn't end all wars, it led to a worse one.
02:12:11 PM Jul 4th 2012
Your first point is true from a psycholigical point of view, but for a historian it renders his work less valuable. If he's trying to get it all out, so to speak, he's not giving 100% unbiased reportage. In essence, he's writing the war as he sees it, and not as it was. While it's true that WWI did lead to more wars, it how it was seen at the time that's important for understanding the attitudes of the soldiers. Hindsight's wonderful, but dangerous for a historian. If at the time the troops thought it was a worthwhile effort, this calls into question all those classic scenes when they sit in their dugouts wondering 'what is it all for?' A really good book on all this is Brian Bond's "The Unquiet Western Front: Britain's Role in Literature and History". A very interesting read! Also worth looking at is Richard Holmes' "Tommy: The British soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918" which gives a very good idea of how a typical soldier's war would have looked. If first-hand accoutns are more your thing, Captain Sidney Rogerson's "Twelve Days on the Somme" is a good one. Sorry for the brief answer, I'm rather tired. I gotta say, it's a pleasure having a well-mannered dispute on the internet rather than a youtube style rant - hats off to you sir!
10:20:54 AM Jul 7th 2012
edited by Aquila89
edited by Aquila89
There's no such thing as a 100% unbiased reportage, and unlike a historian, a novelist probably doesn't even see this as an ideal. Nevertheless, Remarque's novel resonated with many people who lived through the war; it was a huge bestseller when it first came out in 1929. Also, not all troops felt that they're doing something worthwhile. The books you list are all about Britain; well, the British were on the winning side, and they suffered smaller casualties than the French, the Russians or the Germans. There were huge mutinies among the French troops in 1917. Most of these soldiers didn't reject the war as a whole, but they were certainly sick of the way it was fought. And in Russia, of course, the war was the trigger for the revolution. I'm afraid these books are hard to access in Hungary where I live. As for first-hand accounts, I've read my great-grandfather's war diary, who served first on the Eastern Front, then in the Italian Campaign. It indeed gives a very different account on the war than Remarque's novel; he didn't engage in direct combat, he mostly served in patrols, and diseases caused him more suffering than the enemy. He doesn't write much about how he felt about the war, but it seems to me that it didn't affect him all that much. "it's a pleasure having a well-mannered dispute on the internet" Thank you, I try.
01:30:15 PM Jul 12th 2012
You make a good point about there being more to the war than Britain; I'm sadly underread in those other areas. I'm hoping to get enough time to read Mark Thompson's "The White War", about the Italian Front, which I've heard very good things about. Your mention of your great-grandfather's war diary sounds very interesting, and certainly different to the Western Front! I'm guessing he was in the Austro-Hungarian army?