How historically accurate is All Quiet on the Western Front?
Set in World War One, All Quiet on the Western Front is a harrowing account of the events that took place from the German perspective as it was adapted from the German novel of the same name, written by Erich Maria Remarque. The film follows a group of young men who, following a particularly patriotic speech by their head master, all sign up to fight for Germany in the war. Remarque experienced the war first hand and as such, his rendition of the events are trustworthy and reliable historically correct. Created in 1930, the film was released only a dozen years after the end of the war which meant that the memories were still painfully fresh in the minds of cinema-goers. For this reason, the film needed to be historically faithful out of respect for both those who fought in the war as well as those who lost loved ones during conflicts. The film, All Quiet on the Western Front is a startlingly historically accurate film which portrays the harsh realities of war from an alternative viewpoint that most cinema-goers would have experienced before and greeted them with a resounding message that German or British, too many young boys had lost their lives.
The film opens with the head teacher of a boy’s school stating that “you are the life of the fatherland, you boys – you are the iron men of Germany – you are the gay heroes who will renounce the enemy when you are called upon to do so.”1 The film immediately presents the extreme attitude of the German government which presented young boys with the view that they should fight to defend their country without regard for their own lives. The head teacher continues his speech with “are your fathers so forgetful of their fatherland that they would let it perish, rather than you?”.2 The views of the public’s debt to the German fatherland were represented through an infamous song entitled What is the German’s fatherland? The song reflected on Germany as being “more broad and fair” than other countries3 with the final few verses painting a picture of Germany as a friendly, giving, supportive nation. So, when the war in Europe was announced, it was made clear that German nationals were expected to give something back. The film immediately sets this tone through the head master’s guilt-inducing speech. The boy’s faces reflect the mood of the time with a mixture of fears and bravery. This rampant propaganda was routinely used to lure young men into joining the army. The War Department realised that they needed to give young men a reason to fight4 and often played on nationalistic loyalties to induce the desired effect – particularly with reference to their fathers and the fatherland: two things that the young men did not want to fail.
The film follows the experiences of Paul Bäumer who actively reflects the film’s message through his interpretation of events around him. Bäumer, initially, embraces the war effort and is proud to be fighting against Germany’s enemies but, by the end of the film, he begins to realise that they are not so much ‘enemies’ as they are his equals and brothers in arms. This view heavily reflects the views of Remarque who felt that there was no real need for war at all. A view, undoubtedly shared by many more young men who had faced the hardships of the war. Hardships such as upon arriving in the German camp in France, the young recruits are exposed to the true horrors of the war for the first time. The German soldiers are suffering from a lack of food and supplies and the young recruits quickly learn that they must barter with items such as cigarettes to gain access to food. This reflects the real-life supply difficulties which the German had which was, in part, due to their lack of overseas bases5 but, as well, some of the German supply ships were caught by Allied forces, restricting them from delivering their goods 6.
The film also presents a very realistic view of trench warfare. At the time of the first World War, trench warfare was still very much in its infancy which meant that both sides were still adjusting to it. In the film, we see the young recruits spending days sat in a dugout bunker feeling cold, scared, hungry and dirty whilst all around them, they hear the bombs flying through the air before hurtling towards the ground, ending with the enormous bangs. One solider remembers his trench days: “There is nothing glorious about trench warfare. It is all waiting and taking of petty advantages – and those who can wait longest win.”7 This is a view of the trenches that is echoed throughout the history books with the repeatedly grubby, desperate and miserable image being presented. In another scene, we see the boys using their guns to mow down on-coming French troops who are headed for their trench. One French soldier is blown up by a mine and when the smoke clears; his dismembered hands are left clutching the barbed wire – it is in this moment that we see Paul turn away and shudder at the horror of what he has just witnessed. Many men suffered from shell shock as a result of such events and many young men were permanently scarred for life.
The most interesting realism of this film is its focus on the German side of the war. As members of the former Allied countries, we are supposed to view such materials with a sense of dislike for the German men but in reality, this film broaches that gap by presenting the horrors that they experienced as being very much the horrors of our own boys. The novel, which the film is faithfully based upon, was banned by the Nazis who also spread propaganda lies about Remarque which automatically implies that there is at least some truth in his words. The film represents the horror and the hardships of World War One through its recounting of trench warfare, the terrifying sights that the young recruits saw, and its presentation of the damning propaganda which forced the hand of so many young men. It was a war fuelled by lies and officers with little regard for the lives of the young men on the front line; All Quiet on the Western Front reflects this sensitively and precisely through its accurate retelling of the experiences and history of World War One.
All Quiet on the Western Front. Dir. Milestone, Lewis. Perf. Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres and John Wray. Universal Pictures, 1930. Film.
Burke, John & Burke, Sir Bernard. The Patrician, volume 5. London: E. Churton, 1848. Print.
Halpern, Paul G. A Naval History of World War One. Oxon: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Keene, Jennifer D. World War I. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishers, 2006. Print.
Neiberg, Michael S. The World War One Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Print.