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 shells, were destroyed
by the war.
This passage is the epigraph
to the novel, telling the reader what the book is intended to be
and mapping out some of its basic stylistic and thematic ground.
The statement that the book is not “an adventure” separates it from
most war novels in that it will dispense with elements of romance
and excitement in favor of a stark, unsentimental presentation.
The clarification that “death is not an adventure to those who stand
face to face with it” suggests that books that tell stories of war
as though they were exciting adventures do not do justice to the
actual experience of soldiers. Death may be an adventure to the
reader, sitting comfortably at home, but it is anything but that
to the soldier who is actually confronted with the possibility of
being blown to pieces at any moment. The epigraph also declares
that the book will be the story of an entire generation, one “destroyed
by the war” even if not actually killed off by it. The epigraph
thus opens the novel’s exploration of the effect of the war on those
who fought it; war is a transforming force that not only injures
and traumatizes but also annihilates selfhood.
There is friction, however, between the claim that the
book will attempt “simply” to depict this annihilation and the claim
that the book is not an accusation. All Quiet on the Western
Front certainly takes a strong critical position against
the war and against nationalist and ignorant figures like Kantorek
and Himmelstoss. Perhaps the meaning of the epigraph is that the
book will let events speak for themselves since they have not been
embellished for the sake of some political goal. Still, it is hard
to see the one-dimensional Kantorek as anything other than the object
of accusation. The friction between realism and antiwar fervor found
in the epigraph parallels an aesthetic tension in the novel, as
Remarque tries to reconcile his hatred of the war with a need to
create realistic characters who are more than mere punching bags.