In the autumn of 1918, Paul Bäumer, a 20-year-old German soldier, contemplates his future: “Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing anymore. I am so alone and so without hope that I can confront them without fear” (Chapter 12). These final, melancholy thoughts occur just before his young and untimely death. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque creates Paul Bäumer to represent a whole generation of men who are known to history as the “lost generation.” Eight million men died in battle, twenty-one million were injured, and over six and a half million noncombatants were killed in what is called “The Great War.” When the smoke cleared and the bodies were finally buried, the world asked — like Paul and his friends — why? Remarque writes his story to explain their reason for asking this question and why they felt betrayed by their teachers, families, and government. He creates a tale of inhumanity and unspeakable horror and the only redeeming themes of his book are the recurring ideas of comradeship in the face of death and nature’s beauty in the face of bleak hopelessness.
Remarque prefaces his story with his purpose: “I will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Throughout the story, the reader feels that this generation has come through an event that closes forever their chance to go back to the world of their childhood. As early as Chapter 2, Paul Bäumer describes the difference between his generation and that of his parents or even the older soldiers. They had a life before the war, a life where they felt comfortable and secure. But Paul’s generation never had a chance at that life. He explains, “Our knowledge of life is limited to death” (Chapter 10). Even when the story begins, all Paul has known is death, horror, fear, suffering, and hopelessness. He and his fellow classmates are only nineteen and twenty years old; even the young recruit who is mortally wounded in Chapter 4 causes Kat to say, “Such a kid. . . .young innocents — .” They feel nothing, believe in nothing, and see no future because of their experiences in the war.
Even if there were a future, in Chapter 5, Paul and his friends occasionally speculate on what it might hold. Paul cannot imagine anything that would have been “worth having lain here in the muck for” and sees everything as “confused and hopeless.” His friend Albert, who will end up in a hospital with his leg amputated, feels that the war has ruined them for everything. Another soldier in their group, Kropp, understands that they will not be able to peel away two years of shells and bombs like an old sock When they were eighteen, they were just starting to live life as adults, but that life was cut short by the war and, as Paul says of their world, “. . . we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts.” Will they live to fall in love, to marry, to have children? This is a future they cannot imagine and dare not think about.
Paul goes home on leave and regrets what it does to his heart. As he enters his childhood town, he realizes his life will never be the same. A terrible gulf exists between his present and his past and also between himself and his parents. He sees his past, in Chapter 6, as “a vast inapprehensible melancholy. . . . They [memories] are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us. . . . And even if these scenes of our youth were given back to us we would hardly know what to do. . . . I believe we are lost.” At home on leave among his books and childhood papers, he realizes that he can never find his way back to that earlier Paul. Too much has happened at the front for him to believe in human beings or compassion. Even with his parents he realizes that life will never be the same. Paul knows his contemporaries share his feelings near the end of his story when he views the desperate and dying in the hospital: “. . . [a]nd all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me.”
This lost generation felt a terrible sense of betrayal by their parents, teachers, and government. As they looked around and asked “why,” they focused on what they had learned at home and in school. Paul and his friends feel a terrible sense of the absurd when they see how important protocol seems to be to the older generation. The Kaiser visits and all is polished until he leaves; then the new uniforms are given back and the rags of uniforms reappear. The patriotic myths of the older generation become apparent when Paul goes home. A sergeant-major chastises Paul for not saluting him when Paul has spent a good share of his life in the trenches killing the enemy and trying to survive. These examples of betrayal appear again and again in Remarque’s novel.
Parents also carry the heavy burden of the lost generation’s accusation. Paul says that German parents are always ready with the word “coward” for a young person who will not join up. He feels that parents should have been mediators and guides for Paul’s friends, but they let them down. No longer can they trust their parents’ generation. He speaks of the wise but poor people in relation to their parents: “The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy.” He sees this already in Chapter 1 and realizes that his generation is terribly alone and does not share its parent’s traditional values.
Teachers are also to blame. Going home, Paul hears the head-master spew empty patriotic rhetoric and argue that he knows better than Paul what is happening in the war. Paul blames his old schoolteacher Kantorek for Joseph Behm’s death, because Kantorek goaded the hapless Behm to join up. And Paul knows there are Kantoreks all over Germany lecturing their students to patriotic fervor. Even Leer, who was so good at mathematics in school, dies of a terrible wound and Paul wonders what good his school-learned mathematics will do him now. Paul’s entire generation has a terrible feeling of betrayal when they consider military protocol, their parents, and their school teachers.
Old men start the war and young men die. Whether it be this war or any war since, the agony of the fighters is echoed in Paul’s words in Chapter 10, as he gazes around the hospital:
And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, or done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
Man’s Inhumanity to Man
Paul and his friends become so inured to death and horror all around them that the inhumanity and atrocities of war become part of everyday life. Here is where Remarque is at his greatest: in his description of the true horror and paralyzing fear at the front. He describes the atrocities, the terrible consequences of weapons of mass destruction, and how soldiers become hardened to death and its onslaught of sensory perceptions during battle.
Atrocities are simply a part of the inhumane business of war. In Chapter 6, Paul and his men come across soldiers whose noses are cut off and eyes poked out with their own saw bayonets. Their mouths and noses are stuffed with sawdust so they suffocate. This constant view of death causes the soldiers to fight back like insensible animals. They use spades to cleave faces in two and jab bayonets into the backs of any enemy who is too slow to get away. Their callousness is contrasted with the reaction of the new recruits who sob, tremble, and give in to front-line madness described over and over again in scenes of the front.
Remarque vividly recounts the horror of constant death as Paul comes upon scenes of destruction. In Chapter 6, he sees a Frenchman who dies under German fire. The man’s body collapses, hands suspended, and then his body drops away with only the stumps of arms and hands hanging in the wire and the rest of his body on the ground. They later come upon a scene with dead bodies whose bellies are swollen like balloons. “They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.” The smell of blood and putrefaction is overwhelming and causes many of Paul’s company to be nauseated and retch. The assault on the senses is overwhelming. They later pile the dead in a shell hole with “three layers so far.” This horrifying picture is grimly elaborated on in Chapter 9 when they pass through a forest where there are bodies of victims of trench mortars. It is a “forest of the dead.” Parts of naked bodies are hanging in trees, and Paul brutally describes pieces of arms here and half of a naked body there.
By the time Remarque reaches Chapter 11, he has described the soldier’s life as one long, endless chain of the following:
Shells, gas clouds, and flotillas of tanks — shattering, corroding, death. Dysentery, influenza, typhus — scalding, choking death. Trenches, hospitals, the common grave — there are no other possibilities.
Throughout all the horrifying pictures of death and inhumanity, Remarque does scatter a redeeming quality: comradeship. When Paul and his friends waylay Himmelstoss and beat on him, we laugh because he deserves it and they are only giving him his due. As time goes by, however, the pictures of camaraderie relieve the terrible descriptions of front line assaults and death, and they provide a bright light in a place of such terrible darkness. A young recruit becomes gun-shy in his first battle when a rocket fires and explosions begin. He creeps over to Paul and buries his head in Paul’s chest and arms, and Paul kindly, gently, tells him that he will get used to it (Chapter 4).
Perhaps the two most amazing scenes of humanity and caring can be found in the story of the goose roasting and the battle where his comrades’ voices cause Paul to regain his nerve. In Chapter 5, Paul and Kat have captured a goose and are roasting it late at night. Paul says, “We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have. We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death.” As he watches Kat roasting the goose and hears his voice, it brings Paul peace and reassurance.
Over and over again, in scenes of battle and scenes of rest, we see the comradeship of this tiny group of men. Even though Paul counts their losses at various points, he always considers their close relationship and attempts to keep them together to help each other. In Chapter 9, when Paul is alone in the trench, he loses his nerve and his direction and is afraid he will die. Instead, he hears the voices of his friends: “I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life; we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” There is a grace here, in the face of all sorrow and hopelessness, a grace that occurs when men realize their humanity and their reliance on others.
Through thick and thin, battle and rest, horror and hopelessness, these men hold each other up. Finally, Paul has only Kat and he loses even this friend and father-figure in Chapter 11. Kat’s death is so overwhelming and so final that we do not hear Paul’s reaction; we only see him break down in the face of it. There is such final irony in the medic’s question about whether they are related. This man, this hero, this father, this life — has been closer to Paul than his own blood relatives and yet Paul must say, “No, we are not related.” It is the final stunning blow before Paul must go on alone.
Throughout his novel, Remarque uses nature in several ways. It revitalizes the soldiers after terrible hardships, reflects their sadness, and provides a contrast to the unnatural world of war. When Kemmerich, the first of Paul’s classmates dies, Paul takes his identification tags and walks outside. “I breathe as deep as I can, and feel the breeze in my face, warm and soft as never before.” Many times throughout the novel Remarque uses nature in this way to restore men and help them go on.
Nature also reflects the terrible sadness of the lost generation. In Chapter 4, Paul’s company sustains heavy losses and a recruit is wounded so badly Paul and Kat consider killing him to end his suffering. The lorries and medics arrive too quickly, and they are forced to rethink their decision. Paul watches the rain fall and says: “It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead, up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; it falls in our hearts.” The cleansing rain falls upon the hopelessness of Paul’s life and the lives of those around him. Throughout Remarque’s book, we also see a strong affinity between nature and lost dreams and memories. When Paul is on sentry duty in Chapter 6, he remembers his childhood and thinks about the poplar avenue where such a long time ago they sat beneath the trees and put their feet in the stream. Back then the water was fragrant, the wind melodious; these memories of nature cause a powerful calmness and awaken a remembrance of what was — but sadly, will never be again.
Finally, butterflies play gracefully and settle on the teeth of a skull; birds fly through the air in a carefree pattern. This is nature in the midst of death and destruction. While men kill each other and wonder why, the butterflies, birds, and breeze flutter though the killing fields and carry on as if mankind were quite insignificant. Even at the end when Paul knows there is so little time until the armistice, he reflects on the beauty of life and hopes that he can stay alive until the laws of nature once again prevail and the actions of men bring peace. He describes the red poppies, meadows, beetles, grass, trees at twilight, and the stars. How can such beauty go on in the midst of such heartache?
Remarque says that this novel “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” If words can touch what men hold to be dear in their hearts and so cause them to change the world, this book with its words of a lost generation, lost values, and lost humanity is surely one that should be required reading for all generations.