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Book Club Kits: All Quiet on the Western Front

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Erich Maria Remarque

Born June 22, 1898 in Osnabrück, Germany - died September 25, 1970 in Locarno, Switzerland

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Book Summary

The touching story of four young German boys & their army life during World War I.

Considered by many the greatest war novel of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front is Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece of the German experience during World War I.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. . . .
This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army during World War I. They become soldiers with youthful enthusiasm. But the world of duty, culture, and progress they had been taught breaks in pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches.
Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principle of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another . . .  if only he can come out of the war alive.

Discussion Questions

1. Baumer paints a grim, sadistic picture of Corporal Himmelstoss, yet credits the training period under him with supplying the recruits with attributes they lacked. Is it possible that Himmelstoss purposely employed his methods to "toughen up" the recruits and inspire esprit de corps in them? Consider Himmelstoss' encounters with his troops.2. Why does Kat say "we are losing the war because we can salute too well"?

3. What does Haie Westhus mean when, after the recruits ambush Himmelstoss, he comments that "Revenge is black-pudding"?

4.   A certain matter-of-fact quality pervades the descriptions of the wounds inflicted and received by soldiers; the face-to-face attacks with rifle butts, spades, and grenades; the sounds, smells, and colors of death and dying in this book. Why do the soldiers regard war in such an indifferent manner? Point out dialogue and events that lead you to believe that Paul and his fellows are not as nonchalant as they sometimes sound.

5. Paul says in Chapter Six, "I wonder whether, when I am twenty, I shall have experienced the bewildering emotions of love." Trace the comments and episodes throughout the book that seem to indicate that Paul does indeed experience love, in one form or another.

6. While on the front Paul daydreams about his lovely, tranquil home; when he finally makes it home on leave, he fights back visions of his comrades in the war. Why does he regret having made the trip home? In what ways does his experience there support Albert Kropp's assertion that "The war has ruined us for everything"?

7.   As Paul stands guard over the Russian prisoners, he ponders how commands from higher-ups have transformed men so like his own countrymen into enemies and could just as swiftly turn them into friends. But his thoughts frighten him. What is "the abyss" to which he fears such thoughts will lead?

8. Why does Paul feel a "strange attachment" to the soldiers in his outfit once he returns from leave?

9. While on an especially risky patrol, Paul promises himself that, should some soldier hop into his shell-hole, Paul will be the first to strike. Once he carries out this strategy, why does he try to save the French soldier he has mortally wounded? Why does he later make promises to the dead man that he soon realizes, or decides, that he will not keep?

10. All Quiet on the Western Front abounds with reports of inadequate medical supplies and care, slipshod or shady procedures, and outright malpractice (refer to Chapters One and Ten). How could the government and army allow this problem to go unrectified? How could the soldiers tolerate it? Why didn't more of them report, if not revolt against, the treatment they received?

11. Why do you think the author timed Paul's death in October 1918, just before the long-rumored armistice? (Germany signed The Treaty of Versailles on November 11, 1918.)

12. When All Quiet on the Western Front debuted in the United States it drew tremendous reviews from critics. Even so, one critic tempered admiration of the book's realism with this comment: "It is not a great book; it has not the depth, the spiritual insight, the magnitude of interests which make up a great book" (The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1929). Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? What ingredients are essential to the making of a great book?

(Questions provided by the publisher)

Author Biography

Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the great World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, was born in Osnabruck, Germanyon June 22, 1898

As a student at the University of Munster, Remarque was drafted into the German army at the age of 18. He fought on the Western Front during World War I and was wounded no fewer than five times, the last time seriously. After the war, he worked various jobs—teacher, stonecutter, race-car driver, sports journalist—while working to complete the novel he had had in mind since the war. Published in Germany in 1929 as Im Westen Nichts Neues, it sold 1.2 million copies within a year; the English translation, All Quiet on the Western Front, published the same year, went on to similar success. It was subsequently translated into 12 languages, and made into a celebrated Hollywood film in 1930.

The smashing success of All Quiet on the Western Front was due in large part to its reflection of a widespread disillusionment with the war that took hold of many during the 1920s. Praised as a novel of unyielding realism, All Quiet on the Western Front described in stark detail the physical trauma of war. Remarque also articulated the numbing frustration and anger of the conscript soldier, sent into battle by government and military leaders for reasons of politics and power that he struggled to understand. In the words of his protagonist, Paul Baumer: I see how peoples are set against one another and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one anotherI see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring.

The celebrated American journalist H. L. Mencken called All Quiet on the Western Front “unquestionably the best story of the World War.” Both the book and the 1930 film version were banned by the Nazis after their rise to power in Germany in 1933 as prejudicial to German national prestige. Remarque went on to write nine more novels, all dealing with the horror and futility of war and the struggle to understand its purpose; his last novel, The Night in Lisbon, was unsparing in its condemnation of World War II as Adolf Hitler’s attempt to perpetrate the extermination of Jews and other nonpeople on behalf of the master race.

Though he became a naturalized American citizen and was during the 1930s a frequent participant in New York City nightlife and a companion for several years in Hollywood of the actress Marlene Dietrich, Remarque lived for most of his later life at Porto Ronco, on the shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. He died at Locarno in 1970 with his wife, the actress Paulette Goddard, at his side.