Erich Remarque’s Novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”
War damages life in many ways: physically, mentally, emotionally, environmentally, economically. Erich Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front proves this using the perspective of Paul Baumer, and readers see through his eyes how war affects soldiers. He experiences and witnesses battles, the deaths of his fellow men, terrible injuries, and much more, including his own inner turmoil. All of this greatly impacts Baumer and his life. Remarque illustrates, using Baumer’s point of view and his character development, how even though some soldiers physically survive the war, what they experience destroys any chance of them returning and leading normal, happy lives among civilians due to the weight of the horrors they endured.
One of the ways war damages the soldiers’ futures is that it takes away their faith in authority and their connection with the rest of society. For instance, Baumer discusses how the adults in his life, like his school teacher Kantorek, encouraged the boys to enlist in the army as an act of patriotism. These men and women made being a soldier seem glorious, but “The first bombardment showed [the boys their] mistake, and under it the world as [the adults] had taught it to [them] broke in pieces” (Remarque 13). These people that the boys—who were only seventeen and eighteen when they enlisted—were supposed to be able to trust, more or less led them to their deaths. Once they face the true reality and terror of the war, Baumer and the rest of the soldiers realize this. Consequently, they lose their trust in authority figures, since the last time they relied on them, they were slaughtered like pigs by the enemy troops. Baumer displays this further in his interactions with other such authority figures, like Corporal Himmelstoss and an army major. For example, when Baumer runs into the Major as he’s home on leave, he is infuriated by the Major’s banal and arbitrary demands for proper army procedure; he exhibits this frustration in his inner thoughts. Additionally, the boys’ relationship with Corporal Himmelstoss expresses this same distaste for supposed authority.
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They repeatedly vocalize their contempt for him, and even once physically assault him. Himmelstoss abuses his power as a “non-commissioned officer”, tormenting and humiliating the recruits. This contributes to the soldiers’ negative association with authority; they’ve seen so many people become corrupt with power in the army, so why should they think it would be any different elsewhere? They even show distrust for the army doctors, because though the doctors are supposed to help them and keep them alive, the soldiers are often sent back to fight even if they’re not healthy enough. Finally, many connections with society are destroyed by war, including Baumer’s relationship with his family. When he goes home on leave, his mother and sister inquire about the happenings on the front, and Baumer lies so they don’t worry. This creates a separation between him and those around him. He says, “There is my mother, there is my sister… but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us” (Remarque 160). The war has caused him to distance himself from his family, from the people with which he’s supposed to be closest. This disenchantment Baumer experiences serves to further isolate him from the rest of society. His disdain for those in charge and his lack of connection with people outside the army are just one of many examples of why returning to normal life would be incredibly difficult for those that survive the war.
Another such effect is the soldiers’ loss of empathy and will to live. They are forced to become hardened and relatively emotionless, or they would be completely decimated by what is going on around them. This causes them to be less empathetic. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, when Kemmerich dies in the hospital, all the boys are understandably upset, and Baumer observes, “Suddenly little Kropp throws his cigarette away, stamps on it savagely, and looking around him with a broken and distracted face, stammers ‘Damned shit, the damned shit!’” (Remarque 18). Kropp, a fellow soldier, is grief-stricken at Kemmerich’s death. This happens before they’ve been on the front long, and therefore before they’ve been exposed to the ruthlessness of the battlefield. Baumer himself is upset over the death of his comrade. Their reactions to this death is in stark contrast to their reactions to the death of Leer later in the novel. When he dies, Baumer comments, “What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician in school?” (Remarque 284). He says this in a very matter-of-fact and dispassionate manner, almost completely devoid of the previous empathy he displays.
Remarque’s use of the character development of Baumer shows how the war has robbed him of his compassion; he started off greatly affected by the deaths of those around him, but as he is desensitized to this, he eventually doesn’t have a reaction at all. Furthermore, war takes away the soldiers’ wills to live. After spending such a long time fighting and dying with nothing but thousands of corpses to show for it, they simply don’t have the energy to keep going. This is conveyed through the manner in which Baumer dies. It’s unclear how exactly he is killed, which likely is a deliberate move on Remarque’s part to show the futility of war, as well as the meaninglessness of individual loss of life; someone shoots down a man, and the official report still describes the day as uneventful? The two paragraphs that describe his death are told from an omniscient third person perspective, the only part of the book to deviate from Baumer’s point of view, and describes that “His face had the expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” (Remarque 296). Although he was only one month shy of surviving the war, and although his death came on a relatively quiet day, Baumer’s seeming acceptance of his fate imparts upon readers how little he cared about himself at this point. The war has already taken every single one of his friends; he simply has nothing left to give. The soldiers no longer empathize with those around them, nor have the will to continue living, which would prevent them from successfully integrating back into society.
Lastly, and perhaps most dispiriting, the war strips soldiers of their humanity and innocence. When forced to kill or risk their own demise, these men become animals. Baumer describes this transformation when they enter the battlefield, saying, “We have lost all feeling for one another. We can hardly control ourselves when our glance lights on the form of some other man. We are insensible, dead men, who through some trick, some dreadful magic, are still able to run and to kill” (Remarque 116). They attack without thinking, without even registering what it is they’re doing. What they go through in the army, the monotony, the erasure of their individuality, conditions them to act with cruelty and barbarism, and without mercy. Baumer is the perfect example of this: at one point in the novel, he is alone in a shell-hole, and as another figure comes into the hole, he reacts immediately and stabs the person. This is the climax of Baumer’s experience in the war, and is a moment that also shows how the war takes away innocence.
The fighting has robbed him of his humanity, his childhood, and he has absolutely no say in the matter. The bombs going off above his head force Baumer to remain with the dying enemy soldier, and as he comes face to face with a death that he has caused, the last dregs of his innocence drain away. Additionally, he comments on how “[They] were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and [they] had to shoot it to pieces” (Remarque 87-88). These poor boys, thrust at such a young age into a horrible situation, stand no chance against the destruction they face. Everything that they endure separates them from everyone else, almost creating a different species of human: one that kills and attacks, does not think, does not feel. The idea of these men reclaiming their original, ordinary position in life outside the war is almost laughable. How can one go from the chaos of war to sitting around reading books, when they’ve been changed so drastically by their experiences? The soldiers’ loss of their humanity and innocence leaves them as shells incapable of leading normal, civilian lives.
Through Paul Baumer’s eyes, readers see the utter destruction war causes in the lives of soldiers, and how they may technically survive the war, they return forever changed by their experiences. Even today, soldiers continue to face these same problems. One cannot see what a soldier sees and come out the other side as the same person. This ruination of soldiers and their psyches is the antithesis of modern thought. People strive to improve the world around them, but the human thirst for war is ever present. Perhaps some day, this multidimensional outcome on soldiers physically, mentally, and emotionally will be lessened. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.”