“All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, first published in 1929, is a novel about the experiences of a German soldier during World War One. In the novel, the author uses the themes of horror, sacrifice and waste of life to highlight the futility of war. In my essay I intend to show how the author makes these themes vivid to the reader.
One way the author highlights the futility of war is through the use of key incidents. The story opens with the protagonist, Paul Baumer and the rest of his army company, five miles from the front, having been at the front the previous day. They all received double rations of everything – cigars, cigarettes and food – and are quietly celebrating this. I find it ironic that the only reason that they have these extra rations is due to an army mistake as the army had provided for a company of one hundred and fifty men but only eighty had returned from the front alive.
The first example of “waste of life” is the death of Paul’s school friend Kemmerich. He had been shot in the leg, which had to be amputated as a result. While under anaesthetic his watch was stolen and while visiting, Paul and his friends Kropp and Muller are told by medics that they do not expect Kemmerich to last much longer. They treat him very passively as you might a broken piece of machinery. Kemmerich, realising that he is going to die asks Paul to give Muller his most prized possession, a pair of soft leather boots that he took from a dead Englishman, as Muller’s own are in dreadful condition. This shows the camaraderie between the men as even on his deathbed, Kemmerich is thinking of his fellow soldiers.
It is not until Chapter Four that we learn of the horror of life at the front. This is in contrast with the very calm experiences they had in the opening chapters. They are put on “wiring fatigue” – laying down the new barbed wire – and while doing this they come under artillery fire and are forced to take cover in a graveyard. We see the horror of the war in the description used: decomposing bodies from the graves fly up into the air; the new recruit soiling himself. From the start of the chapter, Katczinsky, the sergeant, has predicted a bombardment but they are all still shocked when it does actually happen. A further example of the horror of war in Chapter Four is the gas attack; the panic over whether your gasmask is airtight or not. The blindness as the visor mists over and the young, inexperienced recruit who had hidden in a shell hole, where gas gathers most, took off his mask early and breathes in the deadly fumes. This is a blatant demonstration of wastage of life. If the recruit had been taught more about how to deal with gas attacks he might have lived.
Another important theme throughout the novel is abuse of power. This is illustrated through the character of Himmelstoss, the corporal in charge of Paul and his friends’ training and through Kantorek, their former schoolmaster. This abuse of power is first seen when Albert Kropp receives a letter from Kantorek. We are told Kantorek was the one who persuaded Paul and his friends to sign up in the first place, inspiring them with speeches about how it was their duty to the Germany as the “Iron Youth” to do their part in the war. The men see this as an abuse of Kantorek’s power of influence over them.
Himmelstoss, their training corporal, is shown to be slightly sadistic. He uses an immensely cruel method to cure Tjaden and another man of their bed-wetting and makes the men do repetitive and tedious exercises in muddy fields. The turning point in Paul’s attitude towards Himmelstoss happens when Paul and Albert Kropp have been ordered to empty a latrine and spill it on Himmelstoss. After this Paul still follows his orders but will always try to twist the wording to infuriate Himmelstoss as much as possible. Later on, they meet Himmelstoss again at the front during an offensive where Paul finds him cowering in a shell hole pretending to be wounded, only to see him overcome with some kind of blind courage and join the next wave of troops charging forwards. After the battle Himmelstoss is appointed company cook and the men see a change in him. He becomes more humble, timid and appears to want to be friendly with the other men. This is shows how battle changes people. Before Himmelstoss was intent on using his power whenever possible but after he sees what the other men have to go through, he seems to regret it and wants to be their comrade.
The offensive in which Paul finds Himmelstoss also highlights the theme of waste of life. Paul reflects on the outcome of the offensive, highlighting the irony of the price that was paid for “success”:
“Still the little piece of convulsed earth in which we lie is held. We have yielded no more than a few hundred yards of it as a prize to the enemy. But on every yard there lies a dead man.”
At the roll call the next day, Paul’s company has been reduced to thirty-two men. When reinforcements arrive, over a hundred of them, one of the remaining men comments that they are becoming strangers in their own company. This shows how men have become more of a commodity and drones to be replace when broken.
The horror of war and self doubt that Paul begins to feel is shown in Chapter Eight when Paul is on guard duty at a prisoner of war camp, full of Russians, where he is surprised to find that he doesn’t hate them, empathising with them. His fellow Germans, treat the prisoners poorly while he shows them compassion for the prisoners, sharing out cigarettes with them. He describes how the German peasants taunt the Russians, slowly eating their food in front of the starving Russians. Paul is unsure why he should treat the Russians as enemies when they have never wronged him and comments that:
“Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot them again and they us if they were free.”
This shows that although the Russians and Germans as individuals have no grudge against each other they would go back to fighting and killing each other purely because they are ordered to. This highlights the waste of life in war.
A further example of Paul showing compassion for the enemy is during Chapter Nine when Paul is trapped in a shell hole, in the middle of No-Mans-Land, and an enemy soldier falls in with him. Paul instinctively stabs him with his bayonet but cannot finish him off. As he watches his enemy die he starts to see him as a comrade. He gives him water to drink, bandages his wounds and promises to write and apologise to the man’s wife and family. In expressing his regret he says;
“But you were only an idea to me…It was that abstraction that I stabbed. But now I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and your fellowship. Forgive me Comrade.”
This again demonstrates how Paul feels about the Russians. They are not enemies but each fight the idea of the other, the German versus the Russian or the German versus the Frenchman.
By the last few chapters of the book all of Paul’s comrades and old friends are being killed. Muller is killed and Paul inherits the boots that Muller had, in turn received from Kemmerich, and Katczinsky was hit by shrapnel and died of his wounds. By the last chapter only Paul is left. His death is described in a brief paragraph where the tense and viewpoint change from the present tense and through Paul’s eyes to past tense and in third person. This change of tense and viewpoint shows the impersonal way in which soldiers are seen when they die. The army report for the day on which Paul died simply read “All quiet on the western front.” This shows that even though this man who the reader has come to know has died, in the whole war his death means nothing.
In conclusion, “All Quiet On The Western Front” effectively highlights many themes, such as horror of war, sacrifice and waste of life to show the ultimate futility of war.