The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque
(I had intended to rerun this post during the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July 1 to November 18, 1916…missed that window, but of course the war lasted for two more years after the Somme)
The narrator is a young German who served in the First World War. The war is finally over, and Ernst, together with his surviving comrades, has returned to the high school from which they departed in 1914. The Principal is delivering a “welcome home” speech, and it is a speech in the old oratorical style:
“But especially we would remember those fallen sons of our foundation, who hastened joyfully to the defence of their homeland and who have remained upon the field of honour. Twenty-one comrades are with us no more; twenty-one warriors have met the glorious death of arms; twenty-one heroes have found rest from the clamour of battle under foreign soil and sleep the long sleep beneath the green grasses..”
There is suddden, booming laughter. The Principal stops short in pained perplexity. The laughter comes from Willy standing there, big and gaunt, like an immense wardrobe. His face is red as a turkey’s, he is so furious.
“Green grasses!–green grasses!” he stutters, “long sleep?” In the mud of shell-holes they are lying, knocked rotten. ripped in pieces, gone down into the bog–Green grasses! This is not a singing lesson!” His arms are whirling like a windmill in a gale. “Hero’s death! And what sort of thing do you suppose that was, I wonder?–Would you like to know how young Hoyer died? All day long he lay in the wire screaming. and his guts hanging out of his belly like macaroni. Then a bit of shell took off his fingers and a couple of hours later another chunk off his leg; and still he lived; and with his other hand he kept trying to pack back his intestines, and when night fell at last he was done. And when it was dark we went out to get him and he was as full of holes as a nutmeg grater.—Now, you go and tell his mother how he died–if you have so much courage.”
Not only Willy, but several other student/soldiers rise to challenge the tone of the Principal’s speech:
“But gentlemen,” cries the Old Man almost imploringly, “there is a misunderstanding–a most painful misunderstanding—”
But he does not finish. He is interrupted by Helmuth Reinersmann, who carried his brother back through a bombardment on the Yser, only to put him down dead at the dressing-station.
“Killed,” he says savagely, “They were not killed for you to make speeches about them. They were our comrades. Enough! Let’s have no more wind-bagging about it.”
The assembly dissolves into angry confusion.
Then suddenly comes a lull in the tumult. Ludwig Breyer has stepped out to the front. “Mr Principal,” says Ludwig in a clear voice. “You have seen the war after your fashion—with flying banners, martial music, and with glamour. But you saw it only to the railway station from which we set off. We do not mean to blame you. We, too, thought as you did. But we have seen the other side since then, and against that the heroics of 1914 soon wilted to nothing. Yet we went through with it–we went through with it because here was something deeper that held us together, something that only showed up out there, a responsibility perhaps, but at any rate something of which you know nothing and of which there can be no speeches.”
Ludwig pauses a moment, gazing vacantly ahead. He passes a hand over his forehead and continues. “We have not come to ask a reckoning–that would be foolish; nobody knew then what was coming.–But we do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things. We went out full of enthusiasm, the name of the ‘Fatherland’ on our lips–and we have returned in silence,. but with the thing, the Fatherland, in our hearts. And now we ask you to be silent too. Have done with fine phrases. They are not fitting. Nor are they fitting to our dead comrades. We saw them die. And the memory of it is still too near that we can abide to hear them talked of as you are doing. They died for more than that.”
Now everywhere it is quiet. The Principal has his hands clasped together. “But Breyer,” he says gently. “I–I did not mean it so.”
Ludwig Breyer’s words: “We do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things…Have done with fine phrases” capture well the break which the Great War caused in the relationship between generations, and even in the use of language. It is a disconnect with which we are still living.
The Road Back, although far less well-known than the author’s All Quiet on the Western Front, is an important book, and should be read by anyone wanting to understand what happened in the twentieth century. I think it’s also a subtler and better piece of literature.
The story opens in the waning days of WWI. There are rumors of peace, but the front is still a very dangerous place. When the armistice is announced, Ernst’s group heads home with mixed emotions: anticipation of their return, grief for those they are leaving behind, and (after the Kaiser’s abdication) a sense of betrayal.
At times on the journey home, Ernst can almost believe that the world is returning to normalcy…at one overnight stop, for instance, where Willy has made a fire and is baking potatoes for the group.
Potatoes! how good they taste!–But where are we exactly? Has the earth returned on her tracks? Are we children again sitting in the field near Lorloxten? Haven’t we been digging potatoes all day in the strong smelling earth, and behind us with baskets red-cheeked girls in faded blue dresses? And now the potato-fire! White mists trailing over the field, the fire crackling and the rest all still. The potatoes, they were the last fruit. Now all is gathered in–now only the earth, the clean air, the loved, bitter, white smoke, the end of the harvest. Bitter smoke, bitter smell of the harvest, potato-fire of our childhood–Wraiths of mist drift up, draw together and withdraw–faces of comrades–we are marching, the war is ended–all is melting, dissolving away–potato-fires have come to their own again, and the harvest and life.
But when they arrive at their hometown railway station, a political riot is in progress. Ludwig Breyer, wounded and suffering from dysentery, is knocked down and kicked by leftist revolutionaries–themselves former German soldiers. He is rescued only when the others draw their weapons and threaten to fire.
Ernst’s feelings on his return home are a mixture of several factors: partly, they reflect the intense nostalgia that most young people would feel on a return to their childhood home after an absence of several years. Partly, they reflect the feelings surely common to soldiers of all nations and all times on a return to civilian life and to a world of people which has not shared their experiences. And partly, they are specific to his own society, its history, and the defeat that it has suffered.
Nostalgia drives a strong need for Ernst to recapture the feelings and experiences of his early youth, now so psychologically far away. With a friend, he visits Becker’s Store, where they used to hang out after school and have long conversations with the storekeeper–“he was our great confident.” But Becker doesn’t seem particularly excited to see them–they are just customers like any other. The special connection, if it ever really existed, is gone.
Ernst meets again a girl named Adele, who has figured in some of his most vivid memories…”The breathless wonder, the impetuousness, the night wind, the darkness, the questionings–all those things that were still with us when, as sixteen-year-old boys, we would race along after Adele and the other girls through the flickering, gas-lit wind”…but she is now a superficial, rather loud person with whom Ernst can establish no connection at all, who responds to his attempts to nostalgically recapture their youth with, “Yes, weren’t we silly? He attends a dinner party at the home of his wealthy Uncle Karl, a government official and is repelled by the smugness and arrogance of the other guests, and “the fact that the same vapid, self-satisfied spirit as of old should still be lording it and giving itself airs.” He tells his dog that he would be more comfortable in the company of the enemy than of the fellow Germans attending this party. “We would get along better with any Tommy, with any front-line Froggy, than with them.”
Although he has little respect for his father, Ernst has always been close to his mother. Here too, though, the war has opened up a gulf which seems impossible to bridge. One afternoon, Ernst is stretched out drowsing on the sofa as his mother sets the table for dinner. “Uncle Karl sent the sausage,” she remarks, to which the half-asleep Ernst replies “Ach, him–that silly arsehole.”
His mother is shocked–“pale and horrified”–not at the sentiment about Uncle Karl, but about Ernst’s use of language. She is so horrified, in fact, that her hands are trembling. “Our language was a bit rough out there, mother, I know–Rough, but honest…Soldiers are always like that.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” she protests, “but you–you too–”
Ernst realizes that in the war his mother has seen “only a pack of wild beasts threatening the life of her child…It has never occurred to her that this same threatened child has been just such another wild beast to the children of yet other mothers.” He drops his gaze from her hands to his own and reflects:
In May ’17, I stabbed a Frenchman with these hands. The blood ran nauseatingly hot over my fingers, and in a panic of fear and of rage I stabbed again and again…Now I sit here before my mother, and she is on the verge of tears because she cannot understand that I should have become so coarse as to make use of an improper expression…You must never know, mother, never know of these last years; never even wonder what they were like, and much less what has become of me. A hundredth part would break your heart…”
Almost all the members of the group feel lost in the civilian world: for one of them, Georg Rahe, the longing to recapture the excitement and especially the feelings of comradeship and meaning that existed during the war is particularly strong. Rahe now sees idealism perishing in a civilian existence that is “this pig’s wash of order, duty, women, routine, punctuality and the rest of it that they call life here”…he sees an ordinary city street as “All one long fire trench” and the houses as “Dugouts, every one–the war still goes on–but a dirty, low-down war–every man against his fellow–” These feelings drive him to join up again–whether the small regular army or one of the Freikorps units is not specified.
And though you tell me a thousand times that you hate war, yet I still say, we lived then. We lived, because we were together, and because something burned in us that was more than this whole muck-heap here…I’m going where comradeship is still to be found.
(The critique of buergerlich (bourgeois, civil, homely, middle-class) society was a feature of the idealistic and rather hippie-like German youth movement before the war–as the character of Georg Rahe illustrates, wartime experience often gave it a more concentrated and more dangerous form.)
Lieutenant Heel, a real war-lover who was previously the company commander, also remains in the military. Max Weil, a Jewish soldier who was the company’s strecher-bearer, becomes involved in radical politics. The two will meet again, when a unit commanded by Heel confronts a group of demonstrators for which Weil is the spokesman.
Perhaps the most nobly-drawn character in the book is Ludwig Breyer–a serious aspiring intellectual as a student, a dedicated and responsible officer in wartime. Now, he is shattered by the feeling that it was all for nothing:
They told us it was for the Fatherland, and they meant the schemes of annexation of a greedy industry.–They told us it was for honour, and meant the quarrels and the will to power of a handful of ambitious diplomats and princes..They stuffed the word Patriotism with all the twaddle of their fine phrases, with their desire for glory, their will to power, their false romanticism…And we thought they were sounding a bugle summoning us to a new, a more strenuous, a larger life. Can’t you see, man? But we were making war against ourselves without knowing it!…The youth of the world rose up in every land believing that it was fighting for freedom! And in every land they were duped and misused; in every land they have been shot down, they have exterminated each other.
Ludwig is deeply humiliated when he is diagnosed with syphilis…and Ernst is infuriated by the doctor’s snide comment about “the reverse side of the medal.”
A lot he knows what it means to get three days’ leave to Brussels, to come by the night train straight from the shell holes and slush and filth and blood into a city with streets, lamps, lights, shops, and women; where there are fine hotel rooms and white bathtubs, and a man can soak himself and scour off all the dirt; where is soft music and terraces and cool, rich wine! A lot he knows of the enchantment that is in the blue, misty twilight of such a little moment between horror and horror..
Ernst’s home, of which he has dreamed so often during his four years at the front, seems different now. “This dirty, damp patch of grass–was this really the setting of those years of my childhood, so radiant and winged in my memory? This waste, dreary square with the factory yonder–can this be that quiet corner of earth we called ‘home’ and which alone amid the waters of destruction out there meant hope to us and salvation from perishing in the flood?…Did my blood lie and my memory deceive me?”
Yet the book ends on a note of modest hope. The happy-go-lucky Willy resolves to take seriously his job as a schoolteacher: “I mean to teach my youngsters what their Fatherland really is. Their homeland, that is, not a political party. Their homeland is trees, fields, earth, none of your fulsome catchwords…we’re old enough now to do some sort of a job. And that’s mine. It’s not big, I admit. But sufficient for me–and I’m no Goethe, of course.” And the very troubled Ernst accepts that the road back from the war:
..will not be that consummation of which we dreamed in our youth and that we expected after the years out there. It will be a road like other roads, with stones and good stretches…And I shall be alone. Perhaps sometimes I shall find some on to go with me a stage of the journey–but for all of it, probably no one…Perhaps I shall never be really happy again; perhaps the war has destroyed that, and no doubt I shall always be a little inattentive and nowhere quite at home–but I shall probably never be wholly unhappy either–for something will always be there to sustain me, be it merely my own hands, or a tree, or the breathing earth.
This book was published in 1930, and Remarque, of course, had no way of knowing what lay ahead. Someone–I believe it was Sheila O’Malley–once observed that a good test of a novel is whether you wonder what happened to the characters after it was over. And in the case of this book, the characters are real enough that I do wonder.
It has been observed that Remarque, a strong anti-Nazi, contributed inadvertently and paradoxically to the west’s unpreparedness for WWII by writing All Quiet…because the horrors of war were portrayed so vividly and the principal characters of the book were drawn so humanly, that the possibility of another war against Germany seemed beyond the bounds of rationality. The same point could be made to some extent about this book, but not quite to the same degree: Remarque here does demonstrate the pull that the comradeship and emotional intensiveness of war can have even on a fundamentally decent man like Georg Rahe, and he shows an emerging resurgence of militarism when Ernst and Willy encounter a fellow veteran–apparently their old company commander Heel–giving drill instruction to a group of enthusiastic boys in a paramilitary organization. Interestingly some of the key factors one would associate with the historical between-the-wars Germany are basically absent from the book: almost none of the characters show any anti-Semitism, and no resentment is expressed toward the victorious Allies.
I first read this book after my father picked it up on a trip when I was about 12. It made a powerful impression on me then, and has stood the test of time very well. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone who wants to understand what the First World War did to western civilization. Remarque’s book can usefully be read in conjunction with Paul Fussell’s nonfiction work The Great War and Modern Memory, which deals with the lasting impact of the War on society and especially on language. Both books demonstrate well the discontinuity in western civilization brought about by the Great War.
Ernst, and especially Ludwig Breyer, would probably have agreed with the words of one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s characters (in Tender is the Night), touring the battlefield of the Somme 10 years after the war:
All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love.
The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque