All Quiet on the Western Front is a masterpiece for many reasons: the story is mesmerizing; it refrains from glorifying war while understanding that young men sometimes do just that; it demonstrates the author’s empathy toward his characters, some of whom learn in turn to feel empathy towards others; and it “tells it like it is” (a form of moral engagement), demonstrating the harm inflicted on all the hapless people trapped in warfare.
A more recent novel stimulating empathy for characters on opposite sides of a horrendous war is All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; this novel weaves together the stories of a young German boy and a young (blind) French girl, as Europe moves into and struggles bloodily through a devastating second World War.
Regarding his motivations for writing the book, Anthony Doerr tells Scribner Magazine that he asked himself, “Could I tell a story about how a promising boy got sucked into the Hitler Youth and made bad decisions that led to terrible, unforgivable consequences, yet still render him an empathetic character? And could I braid his story with the narrative of a disabled girl who in so many ways was more capable than the adults around her?”
He also explains, “My attempt in this novel is to suggest the humanity of both Werner and Marie-Laure, to propose more complicated portraits of heroes and villains; to hint at, as World War II fades from the memories of its last survivors and becomes history, all the light we cannot see. [See more here, and here. A mostly positive review in The Guardian asserts, “There is a worrying even-handedness in Doerr’s treatment of the Germans and the French.” I disagree. There are horrendous passages on cruelty by German officers and nothing comparable for French characters. It is true that one can empathize equally with the German boy and the French girl, which is, I believe, one of the gifts of the book.
I suggest that while reading the novel or shortly thereafter, you participate in the following exercise. Reimagine the basic story in today’s world, with the technology updated and the warring powers being the United States and say, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
Remember that in the book, Germany was the aggressor and France the occupied country; thus, in your reimagining, the Werner character must be an American boy, and the Marie-Laure character a Middle Eastern girl. Can you do this? Can you see these characters? Can you envision feeling empathy for individuals on both “sides” of the conflicts in which the US is embroiled today?