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 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.