Although All Quiet on the Western Front goes a long way in educating readers about the brutality--and, occasionally, banality--of daily war life, it helps to have an understanding of the political climate that precipitated World War I, known at the time as "The Great War."
WWI officially began in 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but the seeds of conflict were sown in 19th-century conflicts between European imperial powers. After 1914, complicated alliances and treaties enlisted more and more countries into the battle. Two major unions squared off against each other at the start of the war: the Triple Alliance of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, Russia.
Supporting the unprecedented global involvement was the ideology of nationalism, or the unswerving dedication to and promotion of one's country. Remarque harshly critiques nationalism through the Paul and the other soldiers, who recognize that their real enemies are not across the trenches, but in high offices in their own country.
WWI ushered in a new form of battle, and this is where Remarque dwells longest. He serves up long, brutally realistic sections describing the new horrific weaponry--tanks, airplanes, machine-guns, poisonous gas--and the new oppressive strategies and settings--notably trench warfare and the chaos of no-man's-land, the small, bitterly contested area between enemy trenches.
The reader may be shocked by the offhand manner in which Paul describes casualties, but he has reason to do so. Death was hardly a rare occurrence; approximately nine million men were killed (not including those from Russia, which is estimated to have lost six million soldiers), and Germany accounted for nearly two million of these casualties. Roughly half of the 70 million men and women serving in the war were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
All Quiet on the Western Front was published to great critical and commercial acclaim in 1929. It soon earned the wrath of the Nazi party for its anti-war and anti-nationalistic sentiments. Though burned and banned there, it has since sold over 50 million copies in dozens of languages, and is still considered by many the greatest anti-war novel of all time.