ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT- A SATIRE?

25 Apr

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   Martial conflict is an anachronism, or rather it should be, and yet proof of humanitie’s inability to coexist is evident in the untold wars currently being fought around the globe. If ever there was an example of man’s abject failure to communicate or to engage in diplomatic discourse then it’s his chronic penchant for war. Eric Maria Remarque was a German soldier during the First World War of ‘14-‘18 and the acclaimed author of the universally- acknowledged, greatest war novel of all time. Having seen brief service but enough horror to last him a lifetime Remarque penned his novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1928.

               How does one describe death and destruction to those who’ve never experienced it, and more importantly how does one market a war novel that fails to glorify war? By stark contrast the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes a mad dash by British soldiers in 1854 against unbelievable Russian odds and is filled with patriotic fervor and that most quintessential aspect of flag-waving British imperialism, military ineptitude. Not so Remarque’s story. There are no allusions to vain glory but instead a cold, clinical look at a group of ordinary men who in order to survive the horrors of the trenches, are turned into killing machines. His is a satirical, historical perspective that enforces a savage anti-war message. In a book filled with cutting commentary, he subtly and effectively ridicules the nature of warfare offering a convincing treatise on the foolishness of war. Using irony, hubris, stock figures and stereotypical nationalism Remarque created a satire of epic proportion.

               The genus of Remarque’s satire can be found in the work of more arcane authors proving that the genre is a contemporary medium and that only the targets of satire change. By comparing the works of various seventeenth century satirists to Remarque, it’s possible to identify the method and compare and contrast satirical literary devices and prove their effectiveness, both historically and in their more recent application.

               The stock figure is an omniscient traditional satirical creation, an entity who personifies that which is right or wrong with a situation or system, be it social or political, who invariably acts as a stereotypical identifier to the reader. The characters, whose names are often symbolic of vice or weakness, are invariably the antithesis of the writer’s considered position and thus eligible for ridicule and mockery. In William Congreve’s play “The Way of the World”(1700) stock figures proliferate the dramatis personae and either mimic their master’s traits or prove that they’re of no better character than those over whom they claim to be superior. Congreve describes a Jacobean world of intrigue and personal gain with fops, dandys, fallen women, and the politically astute who through their connivance, personal associations and collective acumen articulately express that which is wrong with contemporary society. Lady Wishforth for instance, is a rich dowager with an appetite for younger men, whereas Sir Witwould is as sharp as his name implies. Remarque employs similar satirical representations. In a strict Prussian Germany where rank is determined by the position one holds in society, virtue of character is supposedly justified by profession.

               The “Herr Professor” Kantoreck, the German school master who encourages his “Iron Youth” to enlist, is the model of imperious perversity. Although recognized as a man of unquestionable intellect and of great standing within the small community, he misguidedly incites the class through the glorification of war, the necessity of sacrifice, and the honor of fighting and falling for the Fatherland. As impressionable young men Paul Baumer and his classmates throw down their books and run to the recruiting station, placing their trust and ultimately their lives in the hands of their infallible sage. Remarque paints an indelible image of the war fever to which many nations succumbed prior to the start of hostilities. Young men with no knowledge of why, what, or for whom they were fighting, rushed to offer themselves as though it were a game or holiday jaunt. By utilizing the grotesque of a believable, upstanding, professional Remarque throws into doubt the veracity and integrity of those who wield power and questions public faith in assumed authority figures. Baumer goes to war at the behest of his master not because of patriotic fervor or the hatred of an enemy, but because of misguided ineptitude.

               The stock figure can also be used to show the elevation of a character to a position of power. By utilizing a lowly figure both the virtues and vices of the inherited position can be analyzed and the perception of high born integrity challenged. Himmelstoss, a former postman and renowned buffoon whom the school boys have teased in the past is elevated beyond his capability. Now Corporal Himmelstoss , the boys’ nemesis and their boot camp instructor, he literally holds their lives in the palm of his hand. A sadist and a man drunk on power, he makes their lives hell. The satirical allusion here is to “lions led by lambs,” where soldiers of all nations where led by men with just enough plum in their voices to put pips on their shoulders. A university or grammar school education was sufficient to garner a commission in the British and German Armies of the early twentieth century; connection and family name all that were required to send men to their deaths. We see this in Samuel Butler’s “Hudibras” (1662) where “Hudibras” enjoys “Colonelling.” Hudibras is a man who’s achieved rank by affiliation rather than merit and who loves to ride out among the community flaunting his position and exercising his authority for personal gain. An abject coward who’d rather that others pay for his mediocrity, he fulfills the same satirical caricature as the Corporal. Himmelstoss, safe in the knowledge that he’ll never be sent to the front, and reassured in the unlikelihood of ever meeting his recruits again, enjoys the power of his position to the full. Elevated beyond ability and education he humiliates and crushes the will of his recruits, and even manages to kill some of them in the process. Remarque demonstrates his disdain for officialdom and highlights the useless, wastage of life by embodying presumed authority in the unlikely personage of an ex-postman.

               Irony is one of the significant hallmarks of satire and can be found throughout the genre. By inverting accepted norms and contrasting the juxtapositions of the sublime with the ridiculous an argument can be made that strengthens an author’s viewpoint. Authors, by suggesting that which is patently wrong as being obviously correct, can argue their thesis more effectively by offering an alternative position. By confronting a reader with a well-defined argument, and then offering solid reasons for holding that particular view, it’s possible to strongly influence a reader’s impression. This is why satire is such a strong literary tool, and why one could easily confuse the methodology with its more recent applications in propaganda, advertising and even political discourse.

               Swift uses the methodology to great success in “A Modest Proposal” (1729) when he argues for the cannibalization of Irish children in order to help relieve the social problems of the age. His arguments are well thought out, his conclusions logical, and yet his thesis untenable. According to Swift, in order to help the poor and impoverished, it’s necessary to fatten their children and sell them to the rich for food. With one stroke of his pen he relieves the poor of their poverty, establishes a sustainable income, creates a renewable food source and rids the Irish of hunger forever. So long as the Irish continue to bare children then they’ll never starve. The issue of morality has also been addressed as now a child born out of wed-lock is no longer a cause of shame but rather a shrewd investment. What could make more sense than assuaging the poor of their unwanted children, diminishing the burgeoning population, putting an end to hunger and relieving poverty? All fabulous and welcome ideas that would ease the burdens of the poor, except the solution to the problem, the consumption of human children, is morally reprehensible and therefore untenable. Swift is of course being obtuse. By utilizing rhetoric he argues convincingly his hopeless case by dismissing the sensible solutions already ignored by the establishment of the day, and then arguing convincingly for his proposal. If the product of their relief was anything but human flesh his suggestions would’ve been welcomed.

               Such is Irony and Remarque uses this to equal success within his own novel. His twist is to offer the manifestation of total war as normality. A dystopian world in which common men who’ve never met outside of the theatre of war murder one another for reasons they don’t understand, having been ordered to do so by men they’ve never met. An absurd war created in the minds of a handful of individuals for which millions must pay for with their lives under the guise of nationalism and patriotism.

               Paul Baumer caught between the lines after becoming separated from his comrades on a night patrol is unable to find his way back to his own trench and so must stay put. At the moment he decides to try to find his way back, an attack is initiated by the French who, after a short bombardment, race across no-man’s land and across the shell hole in which he cowers. Burying himself face deep in the mud he pretends to be dead in the hope that once the attack is over he can return to his comrades. Suddenly, a French soldier drops into the crater, and seeing only a uniform and an enemy Paul falls upon him with a knife and stabs him repeatedly in the chest. Dismissing the dying, choking man Paul once again tries to escape his predicament but due to prolific machine gun fire is unable and so must stay where he is, a frightened German soldier forced to remain in close proximity to an expiring Frenchman.

               Remarque fills the crater with irony. The Frenchman is no longer the enemy but a man by the name of Claude Duval, a printer with a wife and a child. For the first time Baumer realizes that rather than having killed a monster he’s killed a fellow man who, for the same reasons as himself, was conscripted to fight, having probably never met a foreigner in his life and until the arrival of call-up papers content to continue his own way of life. Remarque insists that had the two men met in peacetime they would’ve bought each other drinks. The war despite the shells flying overhead no longer exists inside of the shell hole, instead there are just two ordinary men who’ve been brought together by circumstances beyond their control. Baumer argues both sides of the war, justifies his actions in killing the Frenchman and yet repudiates what he’s done to Duval. In a pathetic attempt of guilt and self-realization he tries to save the man he tried to kill. Duval ultimately dies and Paul is able to escape back to his trench. The discussion of the rights and wrongs of conflict are left in the crater as Paul finally makes it back to his own lines. Remarque’s portrayal of both murderer and savior embodied by the same soldier are deeply disturbing. How can a man who knew nothing but his studies prior to the war suddenly become capable of such an act? Both dressed in the uniforms of their country they were identifiable as enemies. Once the badges and colors had been stripped away the reality was of two men confronting one another, not two nations. The ridiculousness of strangers hating and killing is as preposterous as Swift’s solution to hunger. Remarque identifies the reasons for the action and then demonstrates the madness of the outcome. The irony is as thick on the page as the mud was deep, in the crater in which the soldiers fought.

               The irony continues to flow when the soldiers are removed to safe quarters behind the lines where they are deloused, fed and given clean uniforms in expectation of a visit from the Kaiser. The men are drilled and paraded in order to receive the supreme being with the pomp and ceremony his rank demands. When the great man finally arrives they are less than impressed. The Emperor is short in statue and unsurprisingly a man just like themselves. Remarque compounds his ante-war rhetoric in the persona of the Kaiser and ends the chapter with the soldier’s realization. Nothing more is said. Nothing else is necessary.

               National hubris as described by Daniel Defoe in “True Born Englishman” (1701) demolishes the idea of racial purity by comparing and contrasting stereotypes and then applying them to the English. A catalogue of disparaging qualities are used to describe foreign nationals and then argued in order to cement the idea of their inferiority to the pure bred English. As with all satire the reverse proves to be true and Defoe then proceeds to apply the same methodology to the English with acerbic clarity. Through his argument one is initially led into a false sense of superiority only to be dragged back into reality when the irrefutable evidence of the counter argument is presented. With mixed blood, diluted race, assimilated language, and of suspect origin, the English are as foreign and quirky as their European neighbors. Defoe demolishes racial purity, not for the sake of disparagement, but to alleviate xenophobic tendency in an attempt to alter a cultural misconception. In this particular case it was the nationality of the new king, William of Orange, who perceived as a Dutch foreigner, was was opposed by some in his claim to the English throne.

               According to “Kantoreck” the school master his “Iron Youth” were exactly what Germany required in its hour of need. The master builds his class of school boys into invincible Wagnerian supermen. Faced only by the “filthy, lazy French” and the “cowardly British Tommies” victory would be swift and the war over by Christmas. The boys believing their master hasten into the ranks, only to discover that the opposite is true. The men in the opposing trenches are in fact themselves, men who’re fighting for survival rather than principal, and who hail from homes and families not dissimilar to their own. The war of course isn’t over by Christmas and the recruits who joined together as a class of thirty students are slowly whittled down to one. Baumer, is the last man standing. With the armistice bells about to ring Baumer foolishly peers above the trench at the site of a butterfly flitting between the rusted wire barricades. Blinded by the beauty of the insect he momentarily forgets the survival instincts honed from years of trench fighting and is shot dead by a French sniper. As Baumer slides dead into the bottom of the trench the bells ring out and the war is over.

               Remarque proves that satire is evergreen and can be used in any age and applied to most subjects. By offering a story of conflict he colors his characters and their experiences with the satirical method, demonstrating that satire is not an outdated concept. Irony, stock characters, national hubris and stereo typical nationalism are as useful to Remarque as they were to the likes of Swift, Wilmot and Congreve. Although the subjects may change, satire is as applicable to a twentieth century war as they are to a sixteenth century Dutch king mounting an English throne, or a Whig official “Colonelling” on his estates. Although Remarque’s raw satire is based on his own experiences of the trenches and the indescribable horror he saw, rather than linger on the brutality of warfare he chooses to highlight the humanity of the protagonists and the obscenity of a generation of young men wasted. What greater satire could there be than men fighting and dying in an ocean of mud when if left to their own devices they would have chosen to live?

               During the Christmas armistice of 1914 soldiers of all nations climbed out of their trenches, exchanged gifts and played a game of football in no-man’s land. They were told by their officers that should they repeat what they termed fraternization they’d be shot. Remarque didn’t experience the common soldier’s desire for yuletide peace though undoubtedly the irony of the occasion would not have been wasted upon him.   

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