📚 The Road Back (Erich Maria Remarque)

Read The Road Back

The Road Back, also translated as The Way Back,[1] (German: Der Weg zurück) is a novel by German author Erich Maria Remarque, commonly regarded as a sequel to his 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.[1][2] It was first serialized in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung between December 1930 and January 1931, and published in book form in April 1931.

Erich Maria Remarque’s The Road Back details the experience of a group of young German men, including Ernst Birkholz, returning from the trenches at the end of World War I. It unpacks the many challenges they face in integrating back into everyday life and the way in which so many are left both physically and mentally broken.

Beginning with the hope of peace, the novel begins with death even as things seem to be coming to an end. It then details the journey of the soldiers back to their towns. This includes a meeting with some Americans who are willing to barter for any relic that they can barter for.

Eventually, once home, Remarque unpacks various facets of life, including seeing families again, reconnecting with past relationships, trying to concentrate enough to read a book, continuing the habit of foraging for food, going back to school, attending dances, and getting a job.

There are always challenges with fitting in with other people’s reality of the experience of the front:

“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 a thing do you suppose that was, I wonder?——Would you like to know how young Hoyer died? All day long he lay out 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 would keep 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 full of holes as a nutmeg grater—Now, yoti go and tell his mother how he died—if you have so much courage.”

Or everyday life:

Here I stand and must now be your teacher and guide. What should I teach you? Should I tell you that in twenty years you will be dried-up and crippled, maimed in your freest impulses, all pressed mercilessly into the selfsame mould? Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive and fire? What should I teach you then, you little creatures who alone have remained unspotted by the terrible years?

What am I able to teach you then? Should I tell you how to pull the string of a hand-grenade, how best to throw it at a human being? Should I show you how to stab a man with a bayonet, how to fell him with a club, how to slaughter him with a spade? Should I demonstrate how best to aim a rifle at such an incomprehensible miracle as a breathing breast, a living heart? Should I explain to you what tetanus is, what a broken spine is, and what a shattered skull? Should I describe to you how brains look when they spatter about, what crushed bones are like, and intestines when they pour out? Should I mimic how a man with a stomach-wound will groan, how one with a lung-wound gurgles and one with a head-wound whistles? More I do not know. More I have not learned.

Should I take you to the green-and-grey map there, move my finger across it and tell you that here love was murdered? Should I explain to you that the books you hold in your hands are but nets with which men design to snare your simple souls, to entangle you in the undergrowth of fine phrases, and in the barbed wire of falsified ideas?

I stand here before you, a polluted, a guilty man and can only implore you ever to remain as you are, never to suffer the bright light of your childhood to be misused as a blow-flame of hate. About your brows still blows the breath of innocence. How then should I presume to teach you? Behind me, still pursuing, are the bloody years. How then can I venture among you? Must I not first become a man again myself?

I feel a cramp begin to spread through me, as if I were turning to stone, as if I were crumbling away. I lower myself slowly into the chair, and realise that I cannot stay here any longer. I try to take hold of something but cannot. Then after a time that has seemed to me endless, the catalepsy relaxes. I stand up. “Children,” I say with difficulty, “you may go now. There will be no school today.”

Thoughts of war are always rising to the surface.

We are like those abandoned fields full of shell-holes in France, no less peaceful than the other ploughed lands about them, but in them are lying still the buried explosives—and until these shall have been dug out and cleared away, to plough will be a danger both to plougher and ploughed.

It is interesting to consider Remarque’s approach alongside other novels, such as Mrs Dalloway and Wise Blood, which touch on the difficulties of life after fighting in war.

2 responses on “📚 The Road Back (Erich Maria Remarque)”

  1. The Truce recounts Primo Levi’s journey after being liberated from Auschwitz. It follows on from If This Is a Man. I have read and watched a lot about World War II, but I had never really thought about what happens afterwards, especially with the divide between the Russians and the Americans. I wonder if one of the differences with something like Erich Maria Remarque’s The Road Back is that there was possibly more movement in World War II? It also made me wonder if Waiting for Godot and Rainbow’s Gravity are not as absurd as they seem?

  2. All Quiet on the Western Front (German: Im Westen nichts Neues, lit. ’In the West, nothing new’) is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. The book describes the German soldiers’ extreme physical and mental trauma during the war as well as the detachment from civilian life felt by many upon returning home from the war.

    The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in late January 1929. The book and its sequel, The Road Back (1930), were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany. All Quiet on the Western Front sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print

    All Quiet on the Western Front by Wikipedia

    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque centers on Paul Bäumer and his experience of the Western Front during World War 1. Through the journey of the novel, Remarque manages to captures so many facets of war, whether it be training, food, lice, gas, hunger and recovery for a generation “destroyed by the war”.

    Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades–words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.

    Our faces are encrusted, our thoughts are devastated, we are weary to death; when the attack comes we shall have to strike many of the men with our fists to waken them and make them come with us–our eyes are burnt, our hands are torn, our knees bleed, our elbows are raw.

    I think that this all well represented in the 2022 film version, even if there are some adaptive changes.

    In some respects the attempt to capture so many different facets feels similar to Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. However, where they differ is that by focusing on a single individual, I feel Remarque is able to take us further inside some of the thoughts and feelings of the soldier.

    Terror can be endured so long as a man simply ducks;–but it kills, if a man thinks about it.

    It is interesting to compare Paul’s return home on leave with the account of soldiers returning home after the war in The Road Back.

    Marginalia

    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. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

    CHAPTER 5

    At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood–nor that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs.

    CHAPTER 6

    Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades–words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.
    Our faces are encrusted, our thoughts are devastated, we are weary to death; when the attack comes we shall have to strike many of the men with our fists to waken them and make them come with us–our eyes are burnt, our hands are torn, our knees bleed, our elbows are raw.

    CHAPTER 7

    Habit is the explanation of why we seem to forget things so quickly. Yesterday we were under fire, to-day we act the fool and go foraging through the countryside, to-morrow we go up to the trenches again. We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they are past, sink down in us like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once. If we did that, we should have been destroyed long ago. I soon found out this much:–terror can be endured so long as a man simply ducks;–but it kills, if a man thinks about it.

    CHAPTER 11

    All other expressions lie in a winter sleep, life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death;–it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct–it has reinforced us with dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror, which would overwhelm us if we had clear, conscious thought–it has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude–it has lent us the indifference of wild creatures, so that in spite of all, we perceive the positive in every moment, and store it up as a reserve against the onslaught of nothingness. Thus we live a closed, hard existence of the utmost superficiality, and rarely does an incident strike out a spark. But then unexpectedly a flame of grievous and terrible yearning flares up.

    What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician at school.

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