In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque depicts the truly gruesome events of the trench warfare of World War I. It is narrated by an imagined first person, Paul, whose poetic nature makes the reading of the novel, and indeed the horrors of the war, more heart-wrenching and believable. Remarque uses this novel as a means to tell the story of the boys and young men of the “lost generation” and of the sadistic jingoists who forced them into a life they never wanted.
Paul Bäumer is a nineteen year old German soldier fighting in the trenches of World War I. He is the protagonist of the novel and always has a philosophical take on things, which, although somewhat stunted by the brutalities of warfare, is always present throughout the novel. Paul takes more time than his classmates to get used to life in the trenches and when the first of his friends from school, Kemmerich, dies it has a dramatic impact on him:
It occurs to me that those fingernails will go on getting longer, long after Kemmerich has stopped breathing. I can see them before my eyes twisting like corkscrews.
Paul cannot believe that everyone in the hospital is taking Kemmerich’s death so lightly and the fact that one of the orderlies describes Kemmerich as “just another fatality” angers Paul. However, he soon understands the reality of war and seems to forget about Kemmerich.
Paul quickly realises that grieving for every soldier who dies on the Western Front is just going to get him killed, so like his classmates he turns into an animal and completely shuts out the human part of his brain to be able to cope with the stress he endures in battle. Paul goes as far as to say that “if your own father came across with those from the other side you wouldn’t hesitate to hurl a hand-grenade straight at him!” showing that they must become hunters, obeying the orders of the commanders, and explains how after every attack, it takes a while before they “turn into something like human beings again”. Remarque puts across this new-found animosity by showing how Paul comes to terms with the soldiers’ deaths:
Müller is dead… he passed on his boots – the ones he inherited from Kemmerich that time. I wear them, because they are a good fit.
By relating Müller’s death in such a blunt sentence, Remarque expresses how Paul no longer cares about the deaths of his comrades. Perhaps moving on from the loss of his classmates implies that he does not want to think about it too much in fear of digging out the emotions that he had so carefully buried. Furthermore, Paul spends more time explaining why he is wearing Kemmerich’s boots rather than telling the story of how yet another comrade has died, showing than he now feels that practicality —good boots— are more important than life. However, this is just a vicious cycle as the boots are passed on again when the previous owner has died, which shows that good boots of course cannot help to keep you alive in the war, and whether you are killed or not is just chance.
This theme of chance is considered in depth throughout the events of the novel. Kat, as he is known is the unofficial leader of Paul’s company and has a knack for scrounging up food in seemingly impossible situations. Though half his age, Paul builds a strong friendship with Kat and when he is killed by a stray piece of shrapnel, we catch a glimpse of the old Paul:
Am I walking? Do I still have legs?… Everything is just the same as usual. It’s only that Private Stanislaus Katczinsky is dead. After that I remember nothing.
With his best friend dead, all the emotions that have built up inside Paul are gradually starting to show. As with Kemmerich’s death, Paul does not quite know how to react to Kat’s death, which shows that he has come full circle and is now back at the beginning, representing the true futility of war. Moreover, he refers to his best friend –whom he normally calls Kat– as “Private Stanislaus Katczinsky” which takes away the strong bond they shared and returns Kat to just a soldier.
Remarque describes the brutalities of the war so graphically that it couldn’t be anything but true. Gérard Duval is the first man who Paul kills in close proximity and since this scene appears quite early in the novel, Paul describes this experience in great detail and the guilt he feels is almost too painful to put into words:
Every gasp strips my heart bare. The dying man is the master of these hours, he has an invisible dagger to stab me with: the dagger of time and my own thoughts.
Before Paul joins the war, he and his classmates all believe that dying for your country is the most honourable way to die. However, in this scene Paul realises that war is anything but that. Once the Frenchman dies, Paul has a great deal of respect for him and realises that war is pointless and that all the soldiers are just puppets in a game they had no reason to be in and Paul blames his old school teacher, Kantorek for not preparing them for the real world. Kantorek’s patriotic sentiments and bullying forced Paul and his classmates –whom he proudly calls the “Iron Youth”– into volunteering for the war. Remarque uses Kantorek as a way of rebelling against the ideals that this teacher filled these young men with before sending them unprepared into the war. Kantorek ironically is drafted and this gives Paul and the rest of his classmates an opportunity to show him what trench warfare is really like and the fact that Kantorek makes a terrible soldier reflects the hollowness of the ideals that he preaches and in reality knows nothing about.
In conclusion, it is apparent that the message behind Remarque’s narrative as a whole has a double meaning: the first is obviously to depict the despairing horrors of the First World War. The second, however, is less obvious and it celebrates human endurance and loyalty to one’s comrades. These two features of the novel are perfectly represented by the characterisation of Paul Bäumer whose life is snatched away in the war, the last young man to die in his class that had joined the army to fight in the war together:
He fell in October 1918… He had sunk forwards and was lying on the ground as if asleep… his face wore an expression that was so composed that it looked as if he were almost happy that it had turned out that way.
This ending is narrated by an unknown person, but by the level of description –similar to Paul’s description of Kemmerich’s death– it is not outrageous to assume that he was a younger soldier who had not yet been broken by the horrors of war like Paul had been. Paul’s death as an ending has a feeling of inevitability because the reader might think that Paul would die in battle, trying to save another man’s life, but the unremarkable nature of his death is quite unsettling and makes the reader realise that Paul Bäumer is just another name in the list of young men whose lives were taken away by the First World War.