All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the disillusionment of Paul Baumer, a young foot soldier fighting in World War I. Written by Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970), this depiction of the horrors of war is one of the most renowned German works of the 20th century. Drawing on his own experience as a young man conscripted into military service for Germany, Remarque not only uses the character of Paul as his own mouthpiece but also makes his protagonist symbolic of the situation of all the soldiers who fought on either side of the western front. Stretching 440 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea, the line of trenches and barbed wire fences moved little between 1914 and 1918, despite incessant attempts on both sides to break through. This infamous front became a symbol of the most futile and meaningless aspects of World War I.
Of particular importance in All Quiet on the Western Front is the novel’s style. The down-to-earth and unassuming narrative voice of Paul Baumer avoids anything in the way of high or polished rhetoric. The style is clean and reportorial, working deliberately against an idiom of heroic adventure or romantic patriotism. Although the young Paul is shown to possess a lyrical and sensitive side, nothing in his narrative is inflated or elevated; indeed, even his death is deliberately made to seem anticlimactic.
The setting of this novel is also of utmost importance. The Western Front of the title is the name for the most important sequence of battlefields in the war. It was here that such modern weapons as poison gas, powerful explosives, and machine guns were first deployed, making the scale of injury and death catastrophic. In addition, individual soldiers were considered disposable in a military strategy of attrition; battles continued for months while corpses and casualties mounted. To Paul, who is thrown into this world with little preparation, the battles on the front are mad, meaningless, and frightening; when ordinary days with his comrades are interrupted by chaotic periods of battle, it is as if he has been plunged into a waking nightmare.
While most of the vivid narrative episodes take place on the front lines, a section of the book depicts Paul’s return to his home, which serves as a contrast to his horrific experience on the front lines. Paul’s books, his butterfly collection, and all personal mementoes of his previous life now seem part of a world he has left behind forever. While suffering deprivation, the people back home have no idea of the dimension and depth of the suffering on the battlefields of the western front. In fact, Paul feels that he must lie to his family and the others in the town because they would not be able to handle or understand the truth. This trip home consolidates Paul’s sense that he is part of a generational shift involving a dramatic break with the past.
A prominent demonstration of this alienation occurs when Corporal Himmelstoss, who had sadistically hazed the boys when they were undergoing basic training, is posted to the front. Instead of viewing him as a member of their unit, the comrades attack him at an opportune moment, beating him severely. The reader comes to understand that for the young soldiers, the war is against not only the enemy, but also against the elders of the former generation who are responsible for its carnage and for stealing the youth of the men who had to fi ght in it. These father figures, once assumed to be guides to the adult world, are now perceived as having no insight or wisdom—indeed as having betrayed the younger generation. Paul and his skeptical, mocking comrades see the authorities to whom they had previously deferred as impervious to the realities of loss and suffering they have caused. In addition, contrary to the official patriotic optimism of the higher-ranked soldiers, the younger comrades suspect that, in reality, their country will not emerge victorious at the end of the day.
With the exception of the resourceful Stanislaus Katczinsky, a fortyish man known as Kat, Paul and the other soldiers are all very young men who have gone straight from the schoolroom to the battlefield. As a result, a generation of young men comes of age in a crisis environment. For Paul and his generation, initiation into adulthood is unusually brutal and traumatic— even those who survive will be psychologically scarred for life. One incident that fills Paul with rage and remorse, for instance, is the way in which his former classmate Kemmerich receives a wound which, because it is poorly cared for by medical officials, turns fatal. By the time Kemmerich dies, however, both Paul and his fellow soldier Muller are more concerned about the fate of Kemmerich’s boots. This is a result of the failure on the part of the authorities to supply the troops with necessary clothing and equipment; it is also a sign of a general dehumanizing set of values in which the dying man’s boots become more important than the dying man himself.
Another traumatic episode concerns Paul’s killing of a French soldier, Gerard Duval. Horrified and conscience- stricken, Paul looks through the soldier’s personal belongings and realizes that this Duval, although not German, was not his enemy but a fellow victim of a war machine that destroyed their generation and its aspirations. Episodes such as this remind the reader that this is a universal story depicting not simply the German point of view but the experience of all of the young men on the battlefields of Europe at the time. Not long after this event, Paul falls in battle. The last survivor of the group of comrades we have been following throughout the novel, Paul is shot by random enemy fire on a quiet, ordinary day not long before the war officially ends. The cold impersonality and absurdity of Paul’s death is described in a very short paragraph which abruptly and shockingly concludes the novel, reinforcing the novel’s basic purpose: to foreground the individual victim of a conflict fought with advanced, lethal weapons for inexplicable reasons. At the same time, Paul’s death represents the experience of a generation of young men sacrificed to a senseless, devastating war that emphasized how an entire civilization teetered on the verge of self-destruction.
A literary sensation when first published, All Quiet on the Western Front has remained among the most read and most memorable of all antiwar novels. Banned in the 1930s by the Nazis, who subjected all Remarque’s work to public burnings, the novel has survived as one of the most indispensable literary documents of the 20th century.
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Firda, Richard Arthur. All Quiet on the Western Front: Literary Analysis and Cultural Context. New York: Twayne Publishing, 1993.
Tims, Hilton. Erich Maria Remarque: The Last Romantic. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.
Wagener, Hans. Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.