The Glory of War is the Realization That There is No Glory

January 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

World War I was a conflict fueled by territorial desires and nationalism. This very sentiment is captured in Erich Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. In the novel, the main characters, all young soldiers, come to understand that war is not glorious and that the people they are fighting are not their enemy. At the time, such ideas were dangerously anti-nationalist ones. Nationalism was a necessary component of World War I but was not, as is explored in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a doctrine held by all Europeans. It is not difficult to see the mark nationalism left on World War I. The popular definition of nationalism is that it is a doctrine that “holds that all people derive their identities from their nations, which are defined by common language, shared cultural traditions, and sometimes religion” (Hunt et al 814). Considering that at the beginning of World War I many countries had a variety of different cultural traditions, religions, and in some cases, languages, it is conceivable that they would be facing considerable turmoil within their borders. One country dealing with the problem of multiple ethnicities was Austria-Hungary. These struggles culminated in the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. At the time, the Archduke was “a thorn in the side of many politicians because he did not want to favor Hungarian interests over other ethnic ones in his kingdom” (Hunt et al 997). Strangely, it was not for this reason that he was killed. His assassin, nationalist Gavrilo Princip, “[dreamt] of reuniting his homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Serbia” (997). The goal of creating a state composed of a single, united ethnicity is undoubtedly nationalist in origin. In fact, it stems directly from the popular definition. After the assassination, Austria-Hungary, with the backing of Germany, declared war on Serbia. One of Germany’s motives in joining the war was “territorial gains leading toward…Mitteleuropa,” which was a territory of middle and eastern Europe that included the Balkan states (Hunt et al 993, 999). The expansion of territory can be seen as a nationalistic goal when it is taken into consideration that nationalism includes a belief in the supremacy of the nation. If those in power believed that their nation was the most powerful and deserving of territories, then that nationalist spirit justifies their country’s expansion. A flurry of nations then joined the war due to alliances. Russia joined to protect the Serbs, as did France, another ally of Russia’s (Hunt et al 999). Great Britain entered the war on the side of Russia and France when Germany, on its way to attack France, violated Belgian neutrality. It is possible to see nationalism at work in these actions, as well. A nation can hardly consider itself superior if it does not honor its alliances and come to the aid of other countries. Similarly, only a nationalistic country can see itself as deserving of other countries’ lands; to do so, the people of the offensive nation have to believe themselves more worthy than those of the defensive nation. During the war, in order to keep the nationalist spirit alive, it was necessary to employ propaganda. In many cases, this was done by vilifying the enemy countries. In one case, “British propagandists fabricated atrocities the German ‘Huns’ supposedly committed against Belgians,” and, in another, “German propaganda warned that French African troops would rape German women if Germany was defeated” (Hunt et al 1012). Even stricter measures were taken by the governments, who “passed sedition laws that made it a crime to criticize official policies” (Hunt et al 1012). All of these things served to rally the citizens in support of the war. The nationalist mentality was common among civilians, and was reinforced by propaganda and the government. It can not be said, though, that all of Europe was taken in by the nationalist spirit. Erich Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front stands as testament to this. In the novel, although the young men fighting the battles are initially caught up in nationalist fervor, they are ultimately able to transcend the one-sided belief of belonging to a singularly superior nation when they experience the war firsthand. This is not to say that the fighting men and women were not affected by nationalism; All Quiet on the Western Front’s civilian characters seem almost solely driven by it and can only interact with the soldiers through a nationalistic paradigm. Early in the novel, it is revealed that the narrator joined the army at the urging of his schoolteacher, Kantorek. Wildly nationalistic, Kantorek would give “long lectures until the whole of [his] class went, under his sheparding, to the District Commandant and volunteered” (Remarque 11). In fact, this mentality was so widespread that “at that time, even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward'” if they did not join the army (11). It is notable here that those recommending the army were not often those in a ready place to join. It is easy to be nationalistic and urge the younger generations to fight in a war when one is not expected to do the same. A similar episode occurs when the main character, Paul, returns to his hometown for a few days. A group of older men invite him to smoke and drink with them. One of them remarks that “naturally it’s worse here,” referring to the lack of food in the area as opposed to the imagined bounty the soldiers enjoy (Remarque 166). The rest of the men are in a nationalistic mood and speak of the territories they deserve to gain in the war. One of them, a school headmaster, “wants to have the whole of Belgium, the coal-areas of France, and a slice of Russia” (166). This attitude held by the civilians, that their country was the most correct and deserving in the war, made it necessary for them to dismiss the non-nationalistic views held by the returning soldiers. Also tied to nationalism is the romanticization of war, which is displayed by Haie when he expresses his wish to stay in the army after the war. He explains that:…you’ve nothing to trouble about…your food’s found every day, or else you kick up a row; you’ve a bed, every week clean underwear like a perfect gent, you do your non com.’s duty, you have a good suit of clothes; in the evening you’re a free man and go off to the pub. (Remarque 79)Haie, like other characters who favor the army, is able to believe in a good life after the war only because of the degree to which army life has been romanticized. His friends must remind him that such a position does not exist (79). The idea of the glory of war is held by many civilians because they have not experienced the degradation of fighting. They believe strongly in their leaders and the propaganda; they need to believe that their army is infinitely superior to other countries’ armies. If they were made aware of the harsh reality, it would be hard for them to sustain their nationalism and unwavering patriotism. Most obvious in All Quiet on the Western Front is the loss of nationalism seen in the troops. Early in, the informal leader of the group, Kat, suggests an alternate solution to the war: …a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands like a bull fight…in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries…can have it out among themselves. (Remarque 41)He concludes that it would be “much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting” (41). Kat realizes that the disagreements that led to the war are not between the people fighting, but between the leaders that orchestrated the war. This realization is the first of many had by the men that lead them to see that all men, despite their nationality, are the same. In a traditional war novel vignette, the men at one point bring gifts to a household of French women. In order to guarantee a visit, Paul describes how “eagerly we assure them that we will bring [bread] with us…and other tasty bits too” (Remarque 145). In a bit of irony, Remarque has the soldiers paying in food to spend time with the enemy. In fact, it seems they are not enemies at all, but willing barterers. They take pains to travel to the women at night so as to not be detected; after all, they’re not allowed to be there. Later in the novel, Paul is stationed by a camp for Russian prisoners of war. He notes that “they look just as kindly as our own peasants in Friesland” (Remarque 190). Paul notices that they are not much different from German peasants. Were he to believe the nationalists, he would be forced to find even the lowliest German peasant above these Russian soldiers, but he does not. Musing about the Russians, Paul sees that “a word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends” (194). He knows that these people are not his enemies because of anything they have done. They are enemies only because a leader, far removed from the actual situation of war, chose to call them such. Such an attitude is fatal to nationalism. The Russians can no longer be vilified to him because he knows that those he fights are not villains. They are the same as he is: civilians who were sent to fight by an authority that did not have their best interest in mind. This sentiment is further expressed in an exchange between Paul and Albert:”But what I would like to know,” says Albert, “is whether there would not have been a war is the Kaiser had said No.” “I’m sure there would,” [Paul] interjects, “he was against it from the first.” “Well, if not him alone, then perhaps if twenty or thirty people in the world had said No.” “It’s queer…we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?” (Remarque 203).Again, they realize that those they are fighting, in this case the French, are the same as themselves. The final question asked cannot be answered because neither party is wrong. The only blame lies with the leaders that chose to invade; the soldiers doing the work can’t be in the wrong if they see their actions as merely guarding their fatherland. If, indeed, the French are the same as the Germans, German nationalism cannot be upheld. They cannot declare themselves more worthy of land that people equal to them inhabit. This rudimentary conflict of logic is found throughout the novel and constitutes the primary argument against nationalism. All Quiet on the Western Front is considered one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. It attacks the very foundations of war, arguing that war is neither glorious nor necessary. The Great War was largely inspired by a desire for ethnically unified countries and each party’s belief that their nation was the greatest. All Quiet on the Western Front exposes the truth behind these assumptions; it dispels nationalism by revealing that we are all the same.

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