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Ludwig Renn: Krieg (War; Warfare: The Relation Of War And Society)

This is apparently the best-selling German World War I novel, after Erich Maria Remarque‘s Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front). Von Golsseneau, the author, who would change his name to Ludwig Renn, the narrator/protagonist of this novel, kept a diary of his wartime experiences and used this as a basis for his novel. He had intended to focus on the more heroic aspects of the War but, like soldiers on both sides, he soon became disillusioned and focused on the day-to-day experience of the average soldier. Von Golsseneau was an officer, from an aristocratic background, unlike Renn who was from an ordinary background and was an NCO. Von Golsseneau’s initial intention was to produce a diary of his experiences but he then changed it to a novel. Nevertheless, it does read, to a certain extent, like a diary as Renn recounts his experiences from the beginning of the war to the end.

The novel starts as Renn is called up and takes a train journey from Dresden, as the soldiers are taken to the Western front. The soldiers are mildly curious both about where they are going and where they are as they travel to their destination. Initially, as they make their way through Belgium, they encounter little opposition but, of course, they do find some opposition and have to deal with it, though all the time trying not to upset the civilian population. The stereotype of The Rape of Belgium, used as Allied propaganda is not at all evident here. Obviously, Renn is unlikely to show this but the impression given here is similar to the impression that we get when reading novels by some Allied participants, namely that war is hell but we, on our side, are honourable and are fighting for what is right.

Of course, it would be unfair to judge a whole nation on the basis of this book but we do see some differences between the German approach to war and the Allied approach. The British and French World War I novels tend very much to the war is hell approach. The grim view of life in the trenches, the continuous attacks and retreats and the suffering of both sides and the civilian population are foremost in these novels. While Renn does not show that war is easy, the Germans seem to take it more in their stride. We see, for example, the continual falling of shells and the hum of bullets (he has a variety of made-up words for these sounds). Though some do find their mark, the Germans take it in their stride, sometimes even carrying on when wounded. Renn himself is hit and goes to hospital but survives and returns to action. Unlike the Allies, the Germans seem generally content with their officers, though this might be because von Golsseneau was himself an officer. There seems to be little indiscipline and only one case of shirking though, in this case, the man carries on fighting and is killed. Yes, not all goes smoothly. They get lost. They lose touch with their regiment. They get hungry when the supply wagon does not keep up with them.

But things do start to change in the latter part of the War. We get more of the trench warfare that we are used to from other World War I novels, with the deep craters, the wounded and, of course, random injuries. Renn gets hit in the foot and it takes time to heal, as he has both shell and bone splinters in his foot. Discipline also starts to wane, with some desertion and theft of food. We follow the big March 1918 push and its failure and we follow Renn and his men as they return to Germany, the French and Belgian troops in pursuit, where the novel ends.

While written in a low-key, diary style, Renn tells his story well and it is interesting to see things from the German side, showing that they are not the monsters of Allied propaganda, that they have doubts about the justice of their cause, and that they get tired and hungry and fed-up, just as the Allied soldiers did. This is very much an ordinary soldier novel, with some heroics but little about overall strategy and tactics but it is that that makes it an interesting read, well over eighty years after it was first published.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Frankfurter Societäts-Druckerei
First published in English in 1929 by Secker/Dodd, Mead & Company