The Magic Lantern

Ordinary Men and Women: What We Can Learn from Non-Traditional Sources

History, always open to interpretation, is not merely limited to the traditional sources. It can be viewed through forms such as fiction, autobiography, or journalistic memoir, as demonstrated by Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, and Timothy Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern, respectively. These diverse platforms of portraying history and demonstrating historical memory allow for views of history’s effect on the individual and prevent the glorification of historical events in contrast to more traditional sources.

Remarque is a master of demystification: in his classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), there are no great heroes, no men bravely going into battle in the style of German nationalist war novels like The Storm of Steel (1920). Instead, through characterization and intimate details, Remarque unflinchingly shows the brutality of the First World War. But there is more than Remarque’s graphic war descriptions: we learn about the surprising tedium and the agony of anticipation, where our narrator, the young and once idealistic Paul tells us that “the days go by and the incredible hours follow one another as a matter of course.” In just one paragraph, there is a fixation...

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