The Role of Propaganda in All Quiet on the Western Front
World War I was a watershed event in world history. Besides being a war on such a massive scale with many casualties involving three major empires, it brought up many questions concerning the role of the nation state and the meaning of war. The soldiers that came out of World War I alive were often cynical and anti-society. Many art movements were created against the history of the war including Dada, surrealism and the Lost Generation. All Quiet on the Western Front joins Johnny Got His Gun and A Farewell to Arms as the novels which depicted World War I in a decidedly non-romantic light. Of the major antiwar books, All Quiet on the Western Front is rather unique in the ways that it places itself in direct discourse with war propaganda. This essay will discuss the ways that Remarque depicts pro-war propaganda in order to make the war that much more monstrous.
Erich Maria Remarque was conscripted into the German army at the age of 18 and his experiences in the trenches of the Western Front formed the experiential basis for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Even though WWII resulted in more death, the wholesale slaughter that characterized WWI was even more horrific for various reasons including the use of the machine gun to kill thousands within minutes. Much of trench warfare involved wars of attrition where armies would fight over the most trivial of land masses. Many soldiers returned from the front with stories of nonsensical commanders, gas attacks, filthy trenches and watching all of their fellow soldiers being killed around them. These experiences would lead to several works concerning the war. “Between 1928 and 1930, Germany and Great Britain especially, and Franc and America to a lesser extent, experience a sudden and remarkable boom in war books, plays, and films. For a decade after the end of the war, publishers, theatre directors, and film makers had treated war material gingerly, viewing it as a poor commercial proposition.” (Eksteins, 345) British poets like Siegfried Sassoon took a decidedly sardonic viewpoint whereas Dalton Trumbo dwelled on the physical costs of the war on the wounded soldiers who returned with missing limbs and damaged nerves.
All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the most earnest antiwar books and it was adapted to a film only a year after its publication. Veterans of World War I embraced the book and the movie as truthful depictions of their experiences. One veteran said of the movie: “It made me shudder with horror. It brought the war back to me as nothing has ever done before…No detail of horror has been spared to us. The dangers, the savageries, the madness of war, and the appalling waste and destruction of youth…All these are depicted with relentless veracity.” (Wetta, 894) This reception not only won the movie an Academy Award but also cemented Remarque’s reputation as a writer.
Due to the anti-war nature of the novel, the Nazis burned the book almost as soon as they had power and Remarque fled first to Switzerland and then to America where he spent the rest of his life between America and Switzerland. One of the most pressing concerns for the Nazis in regard to All Quiet on the Western Front was the way that the book attacked the war and nationalist propaganda that pushed soldiers into war. Since Nazi Germany was a country that was pushing for a full scale crusade that involved imperialism and genocide, a book that not only decried war but also stood as a refutation to the kind of propaganda that formed the basis of the Nazi party.
One of the misnomers about propaganda is the application of the word. Propaganda is often used in an accusatory manner to denote the kind of political discourse which is manipulative and underhanded. Most of all, propaganda is what the other side does in order to brainwash its members. Few recognize propaganda when they are more or less in agreement with the agenda of the propaganda. As laudatory as Gandhi’s anti-imperialist protests and hunger strikes were, he was still engaging in a particular type of propaganda against the British Empire. He was marketing himself as a holy man who believed in peace above everything else and took the civil disobedience to the logical conclusion. Comparing Gandhi’s protests with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will may seem like a horrifying comparison; however, both are created to support the people in agreement with the propaganda, convince the people on the fence and hopefully, allow for the neutralizing of people in disagreement. Gandhi and the Nazis were both engaging in propaganda and only history judges just how effective that propaganda had been.
The book sets its tone right away with “This book is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” (v) This part feels self-explanatory but it requires a little more unpacking to truly appreciate as a tone setting piece that attacks the propaganda nature of the world of the novel.
The first clause about how the book is neither an accusation or a confession tells the reader that there is a great deal of crime and guilt in the scenes depicted. The accusation would be directed at the generals and the school teachers and the patriotic dirges which sent the young men to the front in the first place The confession is part of an intricate tradition of religious institutions which allowed the adherents expiate their sins – as defined by the faith – through the relating of the behavior and the absolution offered by prayer and a priest. In the act of war, the sin of murder becomes common, even in a post-structuralist morality. The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas wrote extensively about the Other or particularly the Face of the Other that allows people to understand life from a multiplicity of perspectives. According to Richard Middleton-Kaplan: “The face of the Other, if truly looked into, forbids not just murder but also war, even war on the grandest scale.” (75-76)
The part that states that “death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it” is particularly important to a discussion of how war is depicted in art and media. Adventure is a positive term that goes hand in hand with views of masculinity and individualism. In modern western society, children grow up watching the adventures in movies and reading about them in books. Figures like Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, Flash Gordon and Spiderman provide vicarious thrills for generations of children and adults. One of the most common refrains in pro-war propaganda is that war is an adventure. In fact the military is routinely presented as an adventure where young men and women can travel the world and see exotic locations. Not surprisingly “Remarque’s novel was banned in Nazi Germany for this reason, and because it failed to glorify war sufficiently to fit into the Nazi ideology of superiority and conquest.” (Ulrich, 232)
The final portion of the introduction states that the men who fought in the war – or even the men who did not fight in the war – were destroyed even though they may have survived it. Erich Remarque is not just talking about the extreme cases of PTSD or limb amputation. He is talking about the people who needed to evaluate their lives in the absence of peers. These men went to war and saw horrors that no generation before them could conceive of on such a grand scale in such an efficient manner. They came back home to villages that were empty of the friends and comrades that they once had a pint with or knew all of their lives. Many of them couldn’t deal with the civilian life because they were so accustomed to the guns of war that they didn’t know how to fall asleep without watches and rats and the sounds of shooting.
There are several stories associated with war. There are people who come home from wars feeling a renewed sense of purpose. WWII veterans tend to be very proud of their achievement and they accept the “greatest generation” label without too much protest. Vietnam War veterans have a host of issues concerning the war. Some like Ron Kovacks became anti-war activists. Others like John McCain became politicians who knew that their efforts in the war took decades to be fully appreciated. There are drug addicts and homeless veterans. There are also people who were proud of their efforts and believed that they were doing the right thing. Oliver North was of the belief that the main problem with Vietnam involved politicians not allowing the military to handle everything.
Remarque by stating that the generation of young men (and not just those who fought in the trenches) was destroyed is giving us his view of how the war happened. For Remarque, the war was nasty and brutal. There will be no scenes of T.E. Lawrence standing in the desert with flowing robes and rising music.
Kantorek is introduced in the book as a “stern little man in a grey tail-coat with a face like a shrew mouse.” (10) The comparison to the hated corporal leads the protagonist to note that small men are uncompromising and create the worst problems. Kantorek is the inspiration that led the boys into enlisting in the war and yet by the time the narrative begins, Kantorek is a memory of an innocent time when small little men could influence the protagonist but they couldn’t order them into certain death.
Yet Kantorek’s influence is mostly from hectoring and expectations. “During drill-time, Kantorek gave us long lectures until the whole of our class went, under his shepherding, to the District Commandant and volunteered.” (11) Kantorek is depicted as glaring over his spectacles and asking the students if they had joined up.
In these brief flashback scenes, Remarque depicts a social order that is based on conformity and duty. Technically, none of the students need to sign up for the war effort. Remarque was conscripted but there were several volunteers who went due to the influence of teachers, parents and comrades. Not surprisingly, Kantorek’s influence is not explicitly stated. We don’t hear what he is saying or why he is so convincing. In fact, the one line is “Won’t you join up, Comrades?” (11) This is not necessarily a convincing argument. It is simply the question being asked repeatedly.
There are several great bombastic speeches that convince people to join a war effort. Propaganda and rhetoric is a western tradition that goes back to the Greeks. Football coaches and politicians and generals have been speaking in ways that push people into doing extraordinary things. The Winston Churchill speech about fighting on the beaches is an amazing speech that offered both comfort and inspiration for millions of British people. Henry V is a Shakespeare play primarily concerned with Henry V’s invasion of France and it can be as brutal or as romanticized as the director’s vision. Laurence Olivier directed a rather hokey version in 1944 where Henry was an unambiguous hero. Kenneth Branagh, by contrast, filmed a version of Henry V that was dirty and dark with Henry’s bathetic speeches being rung out for their terrible gravity. The only thing missing from the movie was the Shakespearean line where Henry V ordered the English to kill the French prisoners. Yet, for all the brutality and mud and death of innocents, the Agincourt speech still has a soaring music score and still feels like the most inspiring speech ever made – even though it’s mostly false and untenable as a logical argument.
So it’s almost a surprise when the Kantorek character who got everyone to enlist is not depicted as ever giving any compelling arguments. He simply told them to do it and he told them to do it enough times that they wanted to enlist in order to stop hm. There are two techniques being used by Kantorek. The first technique is repetition. The famous Nazi line about telling a lie long enough so that people believe it holds true here since the main point of the character is the fact that he doesn’t stop trying. The second technique is conformity. Only one boy is depicted as holding out until finally he allowed himself to be persuaded “otherwise he would have been ostracized.” Joseph Behm’s minor rebellion against the herd is duly noted but ultimately useless. The band wagon is being jumped on and no one can resist it.
A third propaganda technique mentioned is the goading of the word cowardice. Paul tells us that no one wanted to be called a coward. Interestingly enough, cowardice is one of those words like propaganda or rhetoric that colloquially mean ‘things we don’t like.’ When the BTK killer was finally caught, the families of his victims talked to him in court and called him a coward. However, he was the one who was creeping into people’s homes and tying them up before killing them. That’s not an act of a coward. When Bill Maher pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers weren’t cowards, his show was canceled and years later people were hating him for disputing the term “cowardice” on the basis that it takes bravery to hijack and airplane and use it to kill yourself and thousands of people.
The death of Behm leads Paul to talk about how the major reason why Kantorek convinced the boys to enlist was due to the authority inherent in the man’s position. “The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom.” The teacher who convinced his students to join in the war effort is basically using a power that is altogether too great for just anyone.
Thus within the space of 2-3 pages, the narrator presents us with the propaganda techniques of bandwagon, repetition, threat of ostracism, the notion of bravery and appeals to authority. If everyone is joining up because the teacher told them to join up, refusal is still possible. However, it is much more difficult to enact in such a setting.
The soldiers have an ambivalent view of Kantorek. They blame him for getting them into the war; however, they don’t think that he is malicious. They just find him foolish. When he calls them “Iron Youth”, he is the source of bitter smiles. Paul states that they are no longer youth and they aren’t entirely iron. The iron part is the part that can be disputed more easily than the youth part, but Paul Baumer is more inclined to hate the parts about how he calls them youth. Again, the author is making the point that the dangerously naïve propaganda has created a situation where boys are sent off to war without thought as to how much they will die.
Yet the Iron part of the Iron Youth is also more for wishful thinking because the humanity of the soldiers needs to be taken away if they are to function. “He knows that if he sees the enemy as human, or as innocent and holy, he will not be able to function as a soldier. That way “lies the abyss” because that way lies death; if he cannot shoot into the eyes of the enemy, he will surely perish on the battlefield. Paul knows he must abandon his ethical, common bond with the Other.” (Middleton-Kaplan, 80)
Later in the novel, Kantorek is called up to be a territorial and the soldiers that were once boys in his classroom are upbraiding him for his uniform before making him a squad leader. One of the points that the novel makes is the fact that Paul is amused that the roles have reversed and Kantorek is no longer the school master that oversees everyone. Paul takes this as a sign of growth but it is really a standard role reversal where the boys and the teacher merely engage in power dynamics. Ultimately the gesture is empty since they are still going to die in the war and it is still partially Kantorek’s fault for pushing them into it.
Perhaps the most startling moments in the book are the points where Paul goes home and he needs to deal with the people who are still looking at him as if he is a brave soldier. He finds that he hates everything. He hates the propaganda and he hates the way that the people look at him as if they are proud of him.
Furthermore, he hates peace since he knows that he doesn’t belong there anymore. The fields of Europe are covered with blood but that’s what he has made his life for all his time talking about home, he knows that he is unable to reconcile his soldier life with his home life.
At one point, his mother asks him if it’s really that bad out there. She is looking for reassurance that it isn’t that bad; however, she also knows that all assurance would be in vain. After she asks if it was so bad, she mentions “Yes, but Heinreich Bredemeyer was here just lately and said it was terrible out there now, with the gas and all the rest of it.” (162)
This does break down her innocence but it does make her a transitional character. Throughout the novel there are two attitudes concerning the war – propaganda and reality. The propagandists are gung ho to send their children into the battle and they are full of patriotic odes and appeals to manliness and “iron youth.” They are essentially stupid and purposefully ignorant of the battle.
The second category involves the people who are in the war and they are full of descriptions of murder and brutality. Watching people die in gas attacks and bullets and realizing that they are killing each other over very little has turned them into old men. These are people who think nothing of rats in their trenches or stealing boots from the dead. The few moments of levity that they get are squalid and temporary.
The mother is the character who does not blindly believe in the war propaganda. She is curious and she wants to know. Even though Paul rejects her questions as naïve and uses it as an excuse to go into his memories of seeing the dead, the mother is much different than the teachers that tell him to be proud of himself. The war has turned her into a person who knows the costs of war but not personally. She only knows about the rumors and the home front.
In conclusion, All Quiet on the Western Front acts as a polemic against warfare and one of the strategies that the book uses is the presence of the ignorant propaganda that allows non-combatants to come up with fantasies like iron youth and fear of cowardice in order to get their charges into battle. In many ways, the author is not just speaking out against war but also the sheep-like mentality that allows people to go into war without thinking about the consequences.
Eksteins, Modris. “All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War. Journal of Contemporary History. 15:2. (April 1, 1980). P. 345.
Middleton-Kaplan, Richard. “Facing the Face of the Enemy: Levinasian Moments in All Quiet on the Western Front. Modern Fiction Studies. 54:1. (Spring 2008).
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by Arthur Wesley Wheen. New York: Ballantine. 1982.
Ulrich, David J. “A Male-Conscious Critique of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.” Journal of Men’s Studies. (Feb 29, 1998). 3:3. 229.
Wetta, Frank. “Saving Private Ryan / All Quiet on the Western Front / Filming All Quiet on the Western Front: “Brutal Cutting, Stupid Censors, Bigoted Politicos”. The Journal of Military History. (October 1998). 62:4. P. 894
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