Erich Remarque was drafted into the German army in 1916 when he was eighteen. Germany was then fighting the First World War. He was wounded during the war. Later when the war was over, he decided to tell the public how dehumanizing war was. Shorn of all associations with romanticism and heroism, life in the battlefield was just an effort to stay alive and see another day. Every moment was filled with danger. Paul, for example, was killed on a quiet day when there was very little fighting.
Relevance of the Title
The title All Quiet on the Western Front is ironic. On a day when the army report reads All Quiet on the Western Front, the hero Paul Bäumer is killed by enemy fire. The death of one soldier is insignificant; the army does not consider it worth reporting. One by one his friends and his fellow soldiers have died in action. With each passing day, Paul is more and more convinced that war is futile. On either side the finest of youth have been lost to enemy fire. Ironically, Paul feels that while war serves no purpose, he is unfit for peace too. When he returns home on a short leave, he finds that he cannot fit into his home life or the town.
The Brutality of War
Everywhere in the book there are descriptions of the brutality of war; there is no escaping it. War makes demons of ordinary people. Himmelstoss is an unremarkable postman who goes about his work in peacetime but when he is made a Corporal in charge of training new recruits, he becomes cruel and brutal to his own countrymen. All Quiet on the Western Front stands out as unlike many other books which dealt with war, in that it does not seek to portray war in any other way than what it is – gory, brutal and meaningless. The First World War was different from all other wars that went in front of it – it was dehumanized, killings were on mass scale with the use of artillery and technology that was precise.
The Psychological Cost of War
Soldiers who are constantly exposed to the threat of violent sudden death had altered psyches. The only way to cope was to disconnect themselves from their feelings. But that in itself was destructive. Without emotional moorings, they could not connect with families during vacations and peacetime. There was also the lingering question of whether wars served any purpose. The area each army gained at the cost of several lives was paltry; it could be lost again the next day with more soldiers perishing in its defense.
Paul is the narrator and the protagonist of the novel. He is a compassionate and sensitive young man who is persuaded to join the army by his teacher but he is so brutalized by what he sees and experiences at the front, it doesn’t seem he will be able to live a normal life after this. He loses all his friends and acquaintances who made up his company. Paul is one of the last to be killed.
He is an unremarkable postman before war. When he is made a Corporal who is in charge of training the new recruits, he becomes a sadist who enjoys the power he wields. It is when he is sent to the battle lines that he understands fear.
He is much older than Paul and his other friends but Kat is very popular in the company. He is a very resourceful man who knows where to find blankets and clothing for those in his company.
Paul and his friends have left school and signed up for service in the army after listening to the jingoistic talk of their teacher Kantorek who paints a romantic picture of fighting for the country. But the inhuman training they are given by Corporal Himmelstoss and the exposure to actual fighting in the trenches make them realize that there is no glory or honor in killing unknown men. The constant danger and fear they have for their live keeps them on edge. After two weeks of relentless fighting, the company is given leave. Out of the 150 soldiers in the company only eighty come back – the rest either desert or die of wounds and disease.
It is difficult to find a satisfying meal or sufficient clothing and footwear in the front. When Kimmerich is wounded and dying, some of the other soldiers want to know who will take his boots. They have become insensitive after being exposed to so much brutality. Paul learns that to survive the conditions in the battlefield one has to become unemotional.
When new recruits arrive, there is much discussion about wars in general. The general view is that wars are a waste of human lives and resources. It is better to settle problems in a civilized way instead of fighting like animals. There is a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. None of them want to fight but feel there is no choice.
A harrowing mission to lay barbed wire ends in many deaths. The living are like living dead – tormented by being in water-filled trenches infested by dead bodies, rats and lice. Corporal Himmelstoss who had tormented the soldiers has been sent to the front too. He is treated with derision there. Another terrible battle ensues. More deaths. The company is down to thirty two. Paul goes home on leave. He is awkward and distant at home. He finds he cannot share his thoughts with anyone. His mother is dying of cancer. He spends all his time with her. Before leaving home he meets some Russian prisoners of war. They are young and scared just like him. He wonders who made them his enemy.
Paul has his first taste of arm to arm combat when a French soldier jumps into the same shell hole where he is hiding. Instinctively, Paul stabs him. As life ebbs out of the enemy soldier, Paul is filled with remorse. Going through his papers, Paul finds that this man, Gerard Duval, has a wife and son waiting for him at home. Later though his friends try to console him saying it was either him or the Frenchman, Paul is grief stricken.
The German army is being defeated slowly. Paul’s friends are dying one by one. Paul wonders what life will be like once peace descends after Germany’s defeat. Will he be able to cope with normal life? He is not sure. The last to die is Paul. It ironically happens on a day that the army reports as “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The calm expression on Paul’s face seems to suggest relief that the end has come.
- This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
This is the epigraph Remarque pens to clarify his aim in writing this book. He says that he does not accuse those who thrust the war on a whole generation that forgot what it was to live a normal life. War affected all – those who died and those who survived. Apart from bringing death and destruction to the country, it also annihilates selfhood. There is no time or opportunity to think of self. Though the tone is not accusatory, the book mourns the destruction of a whole generation across Europe.
- For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity . . . to the future . . . in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. . . . The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.
This passage is a critique of the decisions that the older generation took that affected the younger generation. Paul and his friends were barely eighteen – not an age to die. But they were sent out to fight a war they did not understand; they were too young for it. The boys trusted those in authority but there was a sense of betrayal when the first bodies began to arrive. Why did they have to die fighting somebody else’s war?
- At the sound of the first droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness. . . . It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how. . . . We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.
There is a point in war when soldiers stop thinking rationally like regular human beings; an animal instinct take over by which they anticipate danger even before danger arrives. Only by relying on this animal instinct can they preserve themselves. Paul believes that war takes man backwards; from having human intelligence they regress and become animalistic.
- Comrade, I did not want to kill you. . . . But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. . . . I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
These lines deal with Paul’s realization that Gerard Duval whom has just killed is no different from him. A “sameness” links all the people in the battlefield. It does not matter on which side of the line one is. This is the basic truth that is kept hidden from soldiers when they are packed off to the frontlines. The enemy is demonized; and the soldiers are filled with a hunger for revenge. But there comes a moment when they realize that the other man is another “poor devil”, scared and sick of fighting. Paul is filled with intense remorse.