REMARQUE’S WAR

 

“A hospital alone shows what war is (p. 263)”.

 

At the end of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, the narrator, Paul Baumer, tours the hospital in which he is recovering from wounds received during World War I:

 

“…a few of us are allowed to get up…I am given crutches to hobble around on…So I sometimes escape to the corridor…

 

On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations…jaw wounds, wounds in the joints…kidneys…testicles…intestines. Here a man realizes…how many places a man can get hit.

 

Two fellows die of tetanus. Their skin turns pale, their limbs stiffen…only their eyes live – stubbornly. Many of the wounded have their shattered limbs hanging free in the air from a gallows; underneath the wound a basin is placed which drips the pus…I see intestine wounds that are constantly full of excreta…X-ray photographs of completely smashed hipbones, knees and shoulders…

 

And this is only one hospital…there are hundreds of thousands in Germany…France…Russia…(p. 262, 63)…”

Paul is one of four German friends who, at age 19, volunteer. They have been persuaded to enlist by their trusted schoolmaster, Kantorek. A single member of their class had hesitated:

 

“But he did allow himself to be persuaded, otherwise he would have been ostracized. And perhaps more of us thought as he did…but…at that time even one’s parents were ready with the word “coward”; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for (p. 11)…”

 

The officer in charge of Paul’s platoon is the “terror of Klosterberg”, Corporal Himmelstoss. Like his schoolmaster, Kantorek, Corporal Himmelstoss is of short of stature. Paul remarks of the two of them:

“It is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men. They are so much more energetic and uncompromising than the big fellows…They are mostly confounded little martinets (p. 10, 11)…”

Corporal Himmelstoss treats Paul unmercifully. He has to make his bed fourteen times in a day, knead a pair of boots for twenty hours, scrub out the Corporal’s Mess with a tooth-brush, and run eight times around the barracks half-naked at two in the morning in winter. Finally, Paul and his fellow soldiers empty a latrine-bucket over Corporal Himmelstoss’ legs; and when he threatens them with “the clink”, they, in turn, warn him they will reveal his reign of terror over them to his superiors. That was the end of his authority. From boot camp they are transported to the Western Front, where they find themselves suddenly in the midst of trench warfare. First comes the horror of aerial bombardment:

 

“The thunder of the guns swells to a single heavy roar and then breaks up again into separate explosions. The dry bursts of machine-guns rattle. Above us the air teems with invisible swift movements, with howls, pipings, and hisses. There are smaller shells; -- and amongst them, great coal-boxes and the heavies. They have a hoarse, distant bellow like a rutting stag…The searchlights begin to sweep the dark sky. They slide along it like gigantic tapering rulers (p. 59)…As far as one can see spout fountains of mud and iron (p. 106, 7)… ”

 

After countless hours of this psychological torture, that stretch from days to weeks to months:

“We are deadened by the strain – a deadly tension that scrapes along one’s spine like a gapped knife. Our legs refuse to move, our hands tremble, our bodies are a thin skin stretched painfully over repressed madness, over an almost irresistible, bursting roar (p.111)...”

Cowering in the trenches during the bombardment, these young men embrace the very earth in which they lay:

 

“To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his…mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence…she shelters him…receives him (p. 55)…”

After months in the trenches, Paul considers the role of chance in their lives during war:

“Over us, Chance hovers…A few months ago I was sitting in a dug-out playing skat; after a while I stood up and went to visit some friends in another dug-out. On my return nothing more was to be seen of the first one, it had been blown to pieces by a direct hit. I went back to the second and arrived just in time to lend a hand digging it out. In the interval it had been buried.

 

It is just a matter of chance that I am still alive (p. 101)…”

In addition to chance, there is the precious knowledge that comes of surviving the brutal experience of combat:

 

“Modern trench-warfare demands knowledge and experience; a man must have a feeling for the contours of the ground, an ear for the sound and character of the shells, must be able to decide beforehand where they will drop, how they will burst, and how to shelter from them.

 

The young recruits of course know none of these things. They get killed simply because they hardly can tell shrapnel from high-explosive, they are mown down because they are listening anxiously to the roar of the big coal-boxes falling in the rear, and miss the light, piping whistle of the low spreading daisy-cutters. They flock together like sheep instead of scattering, and even the wounded are shot down like hares by the airmen (p. 129, 30)...”

 

And, later, after years of trench warfare, there develops in each of them a psychology of facing death, with its evolutionary weapon of instinct:

 

“…life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death – it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct – it has reinforced us with dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror…it has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude (p.273, 74)…”

 

But a catalogue of the horrors of war has only begun. Next comes the danger of death by poison gas:

“I grab for my gas-mask…The dull thud of the gas-shells mingles with the crashes of the light explosives. A bell sounds between the explosions, gongs, and metal clappers warning everyone – Gas…These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death…I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in a day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots…The gas still creeps over the ground and sinks into all hollows. Like a big, soft jellyfish it floats into our shell-hole and lolls there obscenely (p. 68)…”

Another great author, Wilfred Owen, who died in this war, also writes of poison gas. In his great poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, he describes his memory of just such a death:

 

“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning…

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.” 

 

Next in our catalogue of the horrors of war come the choruses of wounded horses:

“It is not men, they could not cry so terribly…It is the moaning of the world…wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning…Some gallop away in the distance, fall down, and then run on farther. The belly of one is ripped open, the guts trail out. He becomes tangled in them and falls…one props itself on its forelegs and drags itself round in a circle like a merry-go-round…apparently its back is broken (p. 62-64)…”

 

Then come platoons of rats by the millions, crawling through the trenches, feeding on the dead and the dying:

“…they are so fat – the kind we all call corpse-rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails (p. 102)...”

 

Not to be outdone by nature, there is the man-made terror of the tanks:

“Armoured they come rolling on in long lines…machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war…roll without feeling into the craters…without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching…  invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and the wounded (p. 282)…”

 

And even more modest weapons – like the bayonet – can be used with terrible effect:

“We overhaul the bayonets – that is to say, the ones that have a saw on the blunt edge. If the fellows over there catch a man with one of those he’s killed at sight. In the next sector some of our men were found whose noses were cut off and their eyes poked out with their own sawbayonets. Their mouths and noses were stuffed with sawdust so that they suffocated (p. 103)…”

 

Finally, Paul faces the worst of all war’s horrors, the hand-to-hand killing of one’s fellow men:

“…something heavy stumbles, and with a crash a body falls over me into the shell-hole…I strike madly…and feel only how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses…my hand is sticky and wet.

The man gurgles…I want to stop his mouth, stuff it with earth, stab him again, he must be quiet…

So I crawl away to the farthest corner and stay there, my eyes glued on him…how slowly a man dies…

This is the first time I have killed with my hands (p. 216-21)…”

 

And as painful as are the cries of dying horses, there is the even worse sound of dying men. While stuck within the trenches, there is nothing to be done to avoid it:      

“…we listen to them dying.

 

For one of them we search two days in vain.  He must be lying on his belly and unable to turn over…

He grows gradually hoarser…We search in vain until dawn…But it persists still through the whole night…the dead lie unburied…their bellies swollen up like balloons…they hiss, belch…When the wind blows toward us it brings the smell of blood…The deathly exhalation from the shell-holes seems to be a mixture of chloroform and putrefaction, and fills us with nausea and wretching (p. 124-26)…”

 

From trench warfare on the Western Front, Paul finally returns home on leave. He visits comrades in the hospital, his family, and the mother of a dead soldier from his platoon. First comes his comrade, Kemmerich, who has lost his foot and has had his leg amputated. He looks ghastly, yellow and wan. When he first left for the front, his mother had implored Paul to look after him. “But how can a man look after anyone in the field (p. 15)!” Kemmerich owns a beautiful pair of boots. When he dies, one of his comrades, Muller, inherits them. Later Muller is killed, and Paul inherits the boots. He promises another comrade, Tjaden, that he is next in line. Then comes Paul’s visit to Kemmerich’s grief-stricken mother:

 

“This quaking, sobbing woman who shakes me and cries out on me: “Why are you living then, when he is dead?”… “How did he die?”…I tell her he was shot through the heart and died instantaneously…She looks at me, she doubts me: “You lie…tell the truth, I want to know it, I must know it.”…

 

I will never tell her…Kemmerich will stay dead whether she knows about it or not. When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual (p. 180, 81)…”

 

Next Paul visits his own family at their home. His father pesters Paul to tell him stories about combat; but his mother understands enough to avoid such subjects. He sits by her bed and tells himself he is finally home:

“But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things…I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us…Suddenly my mother seizes hold of my hand and asks falteringly: “Was it very bad out there, Paul?”

 

Mother…You would not understand, you could never realize (p. 160, 61)…”

Once again it is Wilfred Owen, who in his great poem, “Anthem For Doomed Youth”, reveals to us the sheer scale of death in this particular war through the metaphor of the slaughterhouse:

 

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.      

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle…

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells…”

And let us give Remarque the last word in this supreme novel of war:

“I am young…yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear…I see how peoples are set against one another, and…obediently…slay one another…I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words…all my generation is experiencing these things…What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account (p. 263, 64)?...”

…………………………     

 

Remarque has written unforgettably about the experience of war. But what causes war? According to Marx, following Clausewitz, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Lenin and Bukharin developed this idea to account for war during the latest stage of capitalism, imperialism. According to Lenin, this era has the following characteristics:       

       

  • Export of capital is of prime importance.

  • Production and distribution are centralized in monopolistic corporations.

  • Banking and industrial capital are increasingly merged.

  • Having already divided up the world, future competition between corporations and their states takes the form of its re-division.

  • This struggle for its re-division leads to colonialism and war.

 

Bukharin stresses two features:

  • The growing concentration and centralization of capital leads to a handful of monopoly firms merging with banks, as finance capital, and with the State.

  • This nationalization of capitalism takes place in the context of a growing internationalization of the productive forces (i.e. interdependence of national firms on other nations for raw materials, cheap labor, markets), as the economic competition of private firms for markets develops into a global struggle of nation-states for colonies. In this struggle economic competition is ultimately decided by military force.

 

Combining the views of Lenin and Bukharin, we may define imperialism as:

  • A stage in the development of capitalism in which the concentration and centralization of capital leads to the integration of private monopoly capital with the State.

  • The internationalization of the productive forces compels capitalist firms to compete for markets, investment, cheap labor and raw materials on a global level.

  • As a consequence of 1. and 2., competition between firms takes the form of military rivalries between blocs of nation-states, in which a small number of advanced countries dominate the rest of the world.

  • This growing rivalry between capitalist firms and their States – especially during times of economic crisis – leads to increasing military competition, and ultimately, to war.

 

So the drive to war, according to these authors, is inherent in the logic of the latest stage of capitalism, imperialism. With the additional aid of Eric Hobsbawm’s, The Age of Imperialism: 1875-1914, we will provide a sketch of World War I. He begins by admitting the controversial nature of the causes of this war:

“The argument about the origins of the First World War has never stopped…Probably more ink has flowed…to answer this question than any other in history…The Russian Revolution of 1917…accused imperialism as a whole (p. 309, 10)…”

 

Hobsbawm writes that no government wanted such a war, but overwhelming forces pushed them slowly and inexorably into it. The allegedly precipitating cause – the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a student terrorist in a provincial city in the Balkans – was a sideshow. Neither was the problem of who was “the aggressor”, determining:

 

“The problem of discovering the origins of the First World War…lies in the nature of a progressively deteriorating international situation which increasingly escaped from the control of governments. Gradually Europe found itself dividing into two opposed blocs of great powers (p. 312)…”

 

These two opposed blocs of great powers – “the Anglo-German antagonism” – was one in which the capitalist nations composing the blocs competed for the same territory and influence worldwide. In Egypt, the Sudan, in the partition of Africa and the disputed areas of Afghanistan, Iran and the Persian Gulf – they sought cheap labor, raw materials, markets, investment opportunities.  And there was the strategic material par excellence, petroleum. Hobsbawm’s analysis is entirely consistent with Lenin and Bukharin’s:

 

“…the development of capitalism inevitably pushed the world in the direction of state rivalry, imperialist expansion, conflict and war…A number of competing national industrial economies now confronted each other. Under these circumstances economic competition became inextricably woven into the political, even the military actions of states…From the point of view of capital, political support might henceforth be essential…From the point of view of states, the economy was henceforth both the very base of international power and its criterion (p. 316, 17)…”

 

The characteristic of capitalism was to expand, and each bloc of nations was in a conquering mood. “In the global ocean all states were sharks, and all statesmen knew it (p. 318).” Global power required a global navy. Britain had one, Germany did not. So Germany built one. The international “arms race” and the armaments industry as a key to both war and peacetime economies had begun. Moreover, all the belligerents, except Britain, had conscript armies, so that the World War I became a “war of the masses”. But both the governments and the opponents of the war were taken by surprise “…by the extraordinary wave of patriotic enthusiasm with which their people appeared to plunge into a conflict in which at least 20 million of them were to be killed and wounded…In 1914 the peoples of Europe, for however brief a moment, went lightheartedly to slaughter and to be slaughtered. After the First World War they never did so again (p. 325, 26)…”

 

 It is at this point that Remarque’s great novel provides the power of literature to animate our theoretical sketch. But is Hobsbawm correct about what the peoples of Europe learned? Perhaps Remarque’s generation did learn that lesson. But each succeeding generation, I fear, has forgotten it, and been duped by their lying capitalist governments into fighting yet another war. According to Lenin, writing in 1917, “The capitalists partition the world, not out of personal malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to get profits.” So to finally end war, we must end capitalism, itself. The Bolshevik Revolution was the beginning of the end of the First World War. Their example remains the only one with which we can ever bring an end to war. 

© 2015 By Mark Dickman