Black-and-White Photos Lend Power To Classic German WWI Novel
All Quiet On the Western Front
By Erich Maria Remarque
Translated by A.W. Wheen
Bulfinch Press, The Illustrated Edition
208 pages, 60 illustrations, $29.95
It has been called the greatest war novel ever written. When Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" was published in 1928, his richly detailed, brutally realistic, and unsentimental portrayal of trench warfare during World War I was an immediate international success.
The book has since been translated into 45 languages and has sold more than 50 million copies, testifying to its universality and enduring appeal.
Remarque's protagonist, Paul Baumer, a 19-year-old volunteer, gives us a grunt's-eye-view of the fighting.
From his perspective, this is a war not only without glory, but without any sense of purpose. In fact, the political aspects of the war are nowhere to be found.
Baumer and his young comrades are concerned more with keeping their meager bread rations from being eaten by rats than they are with military objectives.
Shelling, gun fire, lice, poison gas, corpses hanging from trees, and German doctors who amputate at the drop of a hat are among their day-to-day confrontations. Life at the front is life in a world that careens abruptly between monotony and terror, survival and death.
Bulfinch Press, a division of Little, Brown, the book's first American publisher, has recently come out with a new edition of the book. Accompanied by 60 black-and-white photographs, it is the first illustrated edition in English of this modern classic.
The photographs, all of them previously unpublished, were taken from the collection of the Liberty Memorial Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the only World War I museum in the United States.
Doran Cart, director of the Liberty Memorial Museum, and museum archivist Lynn Jenkins managed to find photographs with a striking correlation to the text they illustrate.
A sentence like, "Later in the evening we hear mewing" is accompanied by a photograph of a soldier holding a cat. "The notes of an accordion float across from the billets" goes with a shot of a soldier playing an accordion.
The photographs greatly enhance the power of the author's unvarnished prose and give the book a quality of immediacy unique to this edition.
Unidentified except for the passages of text that they illustrate, the photos are like snapshots pasted into a soldier's diary. Few of the images are of famous figures from the war. Most are pictures of ordinary Germans, taken by their countrymen, that found their way to the archive of the Liberty Memorial after serving duty in the scrapbooks of scores of now-forgotten soldiers.
"This book is to be 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," Remarque writes. "It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war," he writes in the prologue.
"All Quiet on the Western Front" transcends its time and setting. Its depiction of war and the effects of war rings true to generations of soldiers, from Remarque's time to now.
David Conrads is a freelance writer living in Kansas City, Kan.