'All Quiet on the Western Front' and some Thoughts on the Causes of World War I

Another challenging film and topic. I will say that this film, book and story really helped show me a view of war that we do not often see in history books, classes or in the ads that are out their in most countries – especially my own- to join the military and the glamor and mystique of service and war. (I can see why some government leaders banned it!) So , onward.... :)


The story starts with two people clearing in the open doorway of a building with a military force marching past. The overall mood is jubilant with smiling officers and waving and beaming bystanders with patriotic music in the background. As we watch the soldiers march past a corner we see a schoolroom of older boys...almost men listening to their professor. His lesson...? To remember that they are the “iron men of Germany.... we must strike with all our power and every ounce of strength to win victory by the end of the year!” The fiery speech continued as the teacher riled up the whole class to leave and enlist. And the speech didn’t end until the rejoicing boys with the impulsivity of youth go and volunteer to enlist in the German military, with their popular leader Paul Bauer at the head of the line.

After enlisting, about seven of the class along with Paul Baumer are still together and set up in the same barracks. They begin basic training and slowly the smiles leave their faces. Their anger is directed towards their commanding officer named Himmelstoss who in civilian life had been their postman. Near the end of their training, in the spirit of pique and frustration, the boys turning men waylay Himmelstoss when he is returning to his barracks drunk and, after tripping and trussing him up in a sheet, the boys give him a few smacks with a stick and drop him in a huge puddle of mud. Soon after they are all sent to the front lines. There, Paul and his friends discover what being on the front lines means; they are despised and pitied by the older men who were forced to join, food is no longer an easy commodity and comfort is no where to be had. One of the old-timers, a man named Kat helps take the boys under his wing and tries to help them learn quickly what they must know to survive.

On their first night on patrol, Babe panics and runs out of the trench into the night where he is mown down with machine gun fire. When they try to collect his body and nearly die in the process, Kat reminds them, “It's a corpse, no matter who it is.” Some of them begin to have nightmares and can't sleep with the sounds of the shelling and there own fear. Having to sit and listen to the shelling is quite challenging and slowly more of the boys need to fight the fear and demons in their own heads. The older men try to keep the boys from running out screaming in their terror, but during one brutal round of shelling, Franz Kemmerick is able to escape out of the trench to the ground and is shot. Paul and another officer run to catch him as he falls back into the trench. He is still alive, but just barely with a serious stomach wound. Paul watches as he is taken on a stretcher to the healers and is told to tell the other boys that he's all right. With more shelling, rats enter the trench and the boys smash and try to kill them, until whistling calls them and their guns to position themselves at the top of the trench. Soon the enemy comes forth – I believe they were the French- and Paul watches the men just being mown down in the bullets. More and more men run forward and more and more just fall and it seems as if no one could make it through. After some time, some of the enemy soldiers do make it through and fighting continues in the trenches. The Germans move forward and then are able to take over another trench pushing, the French back a few thousand yards.

After three weeks, the unit they are in is given one day of leave- to pull back to the back lines. They are able to have the first good meal they have had in weeks- in fact, they all fight over the food and eat and eat until each of them feels they can hold no more. Paul and the boys eat and then go to the dressing tent to visit Kemmerick. They find that their friend has had his leg amputated and is doing very poorly. As the boys trickle out leaving Paul with Franz, both men realize that Kemmerick is going to die soon. Paul fights it and tells Kemmerick that he will live, but over a few minutes he too must accept it and before his friend dies, Franz bequeaths his good boots to Mueller. Paul struggles to understand his friend's death and finds himself running- not in fear, but almost in trying to outrun his fear and to try and remember that he is alive. When he reaches his friends, he shares the news, gives Mueller the boots and they start the march back to the front. Within a few days Mueller is shot and he too leaves the front lines for medical services. The fighting goes on and on and eventually Himmelstoss is back in the unit and finds that he is not respected simply for his rank and he shows himself quite quickly to be as fearful and unknowable as the boys first were when they first arrived at the front lines. He has to be bullied into fighting and cries and yells in his fear... which he finally overcomes and fights. At one point, Paul is in a trench when an enemy soldier jumps in and Paul stabs him. The Frenchman takes a long time to die and Paul finds himself trying to help him survive. As the man wheezes, Paul says, “When you jumped in here I thought you were my enemy and I was afraid of you... but you're just a man like me and I killed you. Forgive me, Comrade.” When Paul is reunited with Kat, they talk and while Paul doesn't feel better, he feels he understands himself and war more. Kat is the man who he also leans on and trusts as his friends fall around him over time.

The battle continues over time as the year passes and finally Paul, too is injured. Both Paul and Albert are taken to the medical camps at the back of the lines. Paul almost dies but eventually recovers and is sent home for a few weeks to visit with family before going back to the front lines. Paul finds that he can't feel comfortable in the world and the village he left. He hears the same teacher encouraging more boys to go to war and he can't stand it – and when he tells his feelings he is told he is a coward. He watches men in the village talk about ways the war should be fought and to not surrender and how his advice is ignored... even though h is the only one who has seen battle. He doesn’t feel comfortable at home any more and seems to feel like a stranger who shouldn’t be there. Even when he looks at his room, it feels apart from him and like nothing makes any sense to him. He looks at his butterfly collection and sees its beauty but sees himself a part. Talking to his mother seems to be agony. “I'm not good for back there anymore... Its not home anymore.” And, so even though he has more leave, he lies to his family about new orders to return and heads back to the front. He meets Kat and as they talk and he finds himself feeling more comfortable – more at home- when some bombing nearby causes some shrapnel to his Kat in his leg. Paul happily picks Kat up and carries him to medical telling him how much he (Kat) means to him. While they are walking, Kat is hit with some shrapnel in his head and he dies... but Paul doesn't notice – his exuberance to be back in a place that he feels comfortable and to be back with Kat, the one person that still feels like family to him. When he gets to the medical tent, he realized his friend- his one last solid grasp on the world, has died.

And so... Paul has nothing left. His life feels meaningless to him and so he fights, but carelessly. He doesn’t care any more. And one day at the front, he sees a butterfly near the ground... just out of reach. The beauty and peace he can not reach and so he climbs out of the trench to catch it, to touch it, and in doing so, a bullet takes his life. And, on a quiet day on the western front, there is still death. Yet no one seem to notice... for that is all there is.

Historical Matrix - The order runs as follows: each number has two sections for the most part. The first section shows the parts of the film picked for analysis and a brief description of the scene. The second contains the analysis. For some sections there was no specific section in the film but the item was very pertinent so it has been added. :)

1. Alliance system - Also known by the name 'mutual defense' treaties, countries would agree to work together if they weer attacked or threatened. In the years preceding the war, many countries developed alliances with each other. When Germany allowed its friendly relationship with Russia to expire, France signed a treaty with the former in 1894 that each country would defend the other if they were attacked. (When this treaty was signed the country that both France and Russia thought of in the main was their mutual enemy Germany.) In 1904, Great Britain signed a treaty with its old enemy France. Russia also was considered a protector of Serbia while Austria and Germany were allies as well. This system of treaties that made countries feel more confident that they would not be attacked and threatened with war because of their allies also guaranteed war if the Alliance system failed in any way. While this system gives the appearance of making the possibility of war more difficult, it also gives smaller nations a lot more influence in the larger and more powerful countries. When one country declared war, soon several countries were at war. At the beginning of the war, there were two large Alliance systems: the 'Triple Alliance' between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, the 'Triple Entente' between France, Britain and Russia. There were also a few other treaties between countries that also came into play helping to cause and continue the conflict. An example is a treaty between Russia and France which they signed thinking of potential problems with Germany. This is one of many treaties that came into play.

2. Nationalism - This differs a bit from patriotism. While patriotism is a love, respect and pride for one's country and its accomplishments, Nationalism is excessive pride that tends to carry over into the belief that one's country and its people are better than any other country and its people and cultures. It is more emotionally based and therefore, a condition that is more easily provoked to violence. When something happens to a country that is bad (such as the assassination of the Austrian Arch duke in Serbia, it is less likely to be dealt with non violently and politically because people feel the they country's honor is at stake... that Austria had to fight Serbia over the assassination to prove its worth and reclaim its honor. When looked at in those terms , Nationalism tends to make countries a lot less free to use diplomacy or other forms of non-violence. Feelings of nationalism can be developed organically over time with propaganda, etc... but can also be developed quickly in a large population through acts of violence and the accompaniment of propaganda/ government talking points with it. Nationalism leaves no room for any person who is moderate or doesn't agree. Any one who is merely patriotic can be considered a traitor for example if they do not agree that war or violence is the best option.

3. Militarism - There are a few ways of looking at how a country sees a military and its needs/uses. Militarism is a genuine belief and focus of a government that the country it rules should have a large military with the capability to use it for defense or to use it to further its interests... no matter what or how ambitious those interests may be. Another way of looking at it is the belief by a government that its military must be the best – the supreme' power so to speak so that in any conflict, they can quickly and easily crush and force surrender on their foe. This kind of thinking creates both danger – for governments are more likely to go to war to not only justify their military expenditures, but also focus on the conflict and not necessarily what their violent actions will cause over time. (The recent conflict in Iraq is a perfect example.)

4. Imperialism - In its most simple form, this word describes a relationship usually between countries. One country will have great power and influence over one or more areas and peoples of the world. It is a way of seeing the world and people in it through lenses of superiority, bigotry and inhumanity. The Country of power and the majority of its citizens use, manipulate, exploit and even kill the people and resources of their conquests and territories... and having control of so many, the country will want more and more. Before this war, there were a few countries in Europe with strong empires that fit this definition very well. The two winners were France and Britain leaving other countries such as Germany to fight over the remaining pieces of the world that could be conquered... and also the battles between all the imperialist countries to keep their territories and to attempt to steal land and resources from the other nations. If a country believes heavily in imperialism, it must have a very strong and powerful military which also requires a population who also believe in the bigoted ideals of the government itself. It is extremely challenging to have a strong empire and belief in imperialism without a large military and the ability to have strong and nationalist feelings in the population.

5. The Western Front - Paul and his unit are stationed and do most of their fighting... and dying... on this part of the battlefield.

The Western Front is the name given to the 'moving' line or boundaries of the fighting between the borders of Germany and France. At the beginning of 1915, the front was about 400 miles long and stretched from Ostend near the North sea... down close to the Marne and Verdun in France and into Alsace- Lorraine. Throughout fighting, the borders of the front would vary based on land won or lost by either the Allied or the Axis powers and by the time of the end of the war, the Armistice line spread north from close Antwerp in Belgium south to past Mulhouse in France to the border of Switzerland. This 400 miles stretch is where most of the fighting was fought and the majority of casualties happened. France alone is estimated to have lost of 3.5 million soldiers on the Western Front.

6. Schlieffen Plan - This plan helped begin the war and started the cry for Paul and his friends to enlist to support the 'Fatherland.'

Named after its chief designer, this plan gave a selection of where the war should start and how the military should initially move to gravitate a quick and successful end to the conflict. Schlieffen was appointed Chief of the German Great general Staff in 1891 and commended developing this plan over time to deal with the political tensions and realities he thought his country faces. Originally called the Great Memorandum and written officially in December 1905, this program called for withholding action from Russia while the main brunt of German forces moved through Belgium and France. Then when they were subdued (and Britain would be as well because her allies had fallen, the Germans could concentrate on Russia. It is worth noting that in the Memorandum itself, its author mentions that Germany is too weak to bring the plan to a successful conclusion – that particular sentence must have been ignored or missed during the preparation for implementation. For the first few weeks of mobilization and fighting, Germany was successful and actually made their way to Paris earlier than they had forecast. However, Britain had been able to send some troops to the aid of France and Belgium had given Germany more difficulties than they had expected. So within a few months of the war, Germany had been unable to win and was now facing war on two fronts... something it had been hoping to avoid.

Some historians suggest that this document has had consequences that still persist on into our current politics around the globe today.

7. Battles of the Frontiers : August 1914 - It is unclear which battles the boys fought in, but this is a probable one.

This name describes several battles over five areas – Mulhouse, Lorraine and the Ardennes, the Mons, and Charleroi. These areas are considered part of the 'Western Front' of the war near the beginning. The German armies under the Schlieffen plan pushed through Belgium to attack the French, but due to delays caused in Belgium and by the British army, the French were able to mobilize enough for the stalemate to begin.

8. unknown soldier - “It must be doing somebody some good” - From a conversation some of the German troops had together on a day of rest.

I figure that all soldiers have thoughts these thoughts at least a few times in their lives. Why are they fighting, who attacks who is the goal, who is the enemy really anyway? Taking the time to study all of these leaders and read some of their words about why they made the decisions they did is interesting and how people decide who is 'bad', who is 'evil', etc... seems to really suggest to me that these leaders saw territory, riches and power and didn't see much else. People were expendable- especially if they were an enemy. And those who fought had very different thoughts and values and beliefs on war than those who didn't. Same problems, same thoughts and same deaths... for the same reasons over the centuries … just with different prettied up reasons. It's just appalling, I have no words.

9. First Battle of Champagne : Dec 1914- Mar 1915 -
Another probable battle that a few of the boys would have participated in.

This battle was the first really significant one by the Allies against the Germans after the technique of trench warfare was utilized. Its goal was to move the Allied forces into new territory and to assist the Russian army, forcing the German command to keep more of its troops and assets on the Western Front. French causalities were a lot higher than the German losses and there and there wasn't really any clear victory for either party.

10. Battle of Verdun: Feb - Dec 1916 : This battle was planned by the Germans in the hopes of taking down the resources of the town so that the French would not be able to continue fighting the war. General Erich von Falkenhayn decided that sin
ce he had no possibility of attacking and conquering England – the 'Great Adversary'- he needed to make France suffer so much and take such losses that the whole Alliance itself would break up. Code named Gericht, his plan was to quickly take over the fortifications at Verdun and in doing so take the offensive in the war. The plan was simple: the French would be forced to fight in a small area that favored the Germans and in doing so would suffer most of the losses and cause their surrender and defeat. If the French refused to fight than they would have to give up Verdun which he believed was inconceivable. The French commanders were taken pretty much taken unawares at the beginning of the battle in late February and did suffer some significant losses, however the quick battle conceived by General Falkenhayn was also not to be. By April, it was clear that there would be no quick victory. By July, some of the offensive was moved to a different battlefield and after ten months, over 700,000 casualties with heavy losses on both sides and a decisive victory by the French army. The French took over 11,000 Germans prisoner and one of the French generals was said to state after a complaint by some German officers about their lack of comfort as prisoners of war, “We do regret it, gentlemen, but then we did not expect so many of you.”

11. Second Battle of the Marne : July 15-Aug 5 1917 -The German plan was to try and divert the Allied forces away from the town of Flanders. This battle was to become know as the beginning of the end of the 'Great War'. German war officer Erich Ludendoff made the decision to head towards Flanders to attack the British forces there and to drive towards Paris. The French military commanders were aware that this attack would take place and so they were prepared. The Germans did well on some fronts, but fairly quickly fell back under a majority French army with help from the British as well as Americans (The Americans joined the war in 1917 after the appearance of the Zimmerman telegram and the attack by the Germans on three American merchant ships.)

12. Colonies / territories and tensions - At the beginning of the war in 1914 the tensions between three countries were really high. Disagreements on different colonies or territories only made it worse. Britain had a population of around 400 million between the Mainland and its colonies which included most of Canada, Egypt, the Sudan, India, Australia and several islands. France had a population of slightly more than 95 million between the mainland and its colonies and had already fought at least one war with Britain over disputed territories. French colonies included some parts of Africa, China and several Islands. Germany had a population of around 69 million between its homeland and its colonies which included Africa, Madagascar, as well as some islands. Both Britain and France reigned supreme over Germany in territories, people and power and so rivalries were found there as well... although France and Britain did consider themselves allies in many purposes including protection. Some skirmished and battles had been fought between France and Germany over disputes areas such as the Balkans. Over a hundred years previously, the King of Austria (Frederick II) said, “The fundamental rule of governments is the principle of extending their territories.” This opinion really hasn't changed over the intervening time.

Thoughts...? Comments?

1 comment:

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