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    soldier standing above trenches in war movie

    I Will Begin

    In the sequel to the great antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front, one returned soldier finds purpose.

    By Erich Maria Remarque

    November 12, 2023

    In 1930 Erich Maria Remarque wrote the sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, which was initially serialized in a German newspaper. It was then published as a book, The Road Back, in 1931. The novel picks up the story at the end of The Great War, chronicling the experiences of the men who returned home from the trenches. One of these survivors is Ernst, who tries to find peace after experiences such as the death of Ludwig (mentioned in this excerpt), which occurred on their first night in the trenches. Near the end of the book, he comes to this moving conclusion.

    I was the whole day in the wood. Weary now, I have turned in at a little country inn and taken a room for the night. The bed is already open, but I do not want to sleep yet. I sit down in the window and listen to the stirrings of the spring night.

    Shadows flit about among the trees and up from the woods come cries, as though wounded were lying then. I look quietly and composedly out into the darkness, for I am afraid of the past no longer. I look into its quenched eyes without flinching. I even go out to meet it, I send my thoughts back into the dugouts and shell holes – but when they return they bring back neither fear nor horror with them, but only strength and will.

    soldier standing above trenches in war movie

    All Quiet on The Western Front (2022). Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

    I have awaited a storm that should deliver me, pluck me away and now it has come softly, even without my knowledge. But it is here. While I was despairing, thinking everything lost, it was already quietly growing. I had thought that division was always an end. Now I know that growth also is division. And growth means relinquishing. And growth has no end.

    One part of my life was given over to the service of destruction; it belonged to hate, to enmity, to killing. But life remained in me. And that in itself is enough, of itself almost a purpose and a way. I will work in myself and be ready; I will bestir my hands and my thoughts. I will not take myself very seriously, nor push on when sometimes I should like to be still. There are many things to be built and almost everything to repair; it is enough that I work to dig out again what was buried during the years of shells and machine guns. Not everyone need be a pioneer; there is employment for feebler hands, lesser powers. It is there I mean to look for my place. Then the dead will be silenced and the past not pursue me anymore; it will assist me instead.

    One part of my life belonged to hate, to enmity. But life remained in me. And that in itself is enough, of itself almost a purpose and a way.

    How simple it is – but how long it has taken to arrive there! And I might still be wandering in the wilderness, have fallen victim to the wire snares and the detonators, had Ludwig’s death not gone up before us like a rocket, lighting to us the way. We despaired when we saw how that great stream of feeling common to us all – that will to a new life shorn of follies, a life recaptured on the confines of death – did not sweep away before it all surviving half-truth and self-interest, so to make a new course for itself, but instead of that merely trickled away in the marshes of forgetfulness, was lost among the bogs of fine phrases, and dribbled away along the ditches of social activities, of cares and occupations. But today I know that all life is perhaps only a getting ready, a ferment the individual, in many cells, in many channels, each for himself; and if the cells and channels of a tree but take up and carry farther the onward urging sap, there will emerge at the last rustling and sunlit branches – crowns of leaves and freedom. I will begin.

    Source: Erich Maria Remarque, The Road Back (New York: Ballantine, 1998), 341–343.

    Contributed By ErichMariaRemarque Erich Maria Remarque

    Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970) was a German writer most famous for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

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