Essay, Research Paper
BARRON’S BOOK NOTES
ERICH MARIA REMARQUE’S
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
^^^^^^^^^^ERICH MARIA REMARQUE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Born Erich Paul Remark on June 22, 1898, he grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Osnabruck in the province of Westphalia, Germany–a city in the northwest part of what is now West Germany. He adored his mother, Anna Maria, but was never close to his father, Peter. The First World War effectively shut him off from his sisters, Elfriede and Erna. Peter Remark, descended from a family that fled to Germany after the French Revolution, earned so little as a bookbinder that the family had to move 11 times between 1898 and 1912. The family’s poverty drove Remarque as a teenager to earn his own clothes money (giving piano lessons). He developed a craving for luxury, which he never outgrew. His piano playing and other interests, such as collecting butterflies and exploring streams and forests, later appeared in his fictional characters. His love of writing earned him the nickname Smudge.
Because of the frequent moving, Remarque attended two different elementary schools and then the Catholic Praparande (preparatory school). He loved the drama of Catholic rituals, the beauty of churches, the flowers in cloister gardens, and works of art. He later wrote with a sense of theater, and he featured churches and museums, flowers and trees as symbols of enduring peace. While in school, he had problems with teachers, however, and eventually paid them back by ridiculing them in his novels. At the Praparande he argued so much with one teacher that he used the man’s personality and another’s name (Konschorek) to produce a specific character in Ail Quiet on the Western Front: Schoolmaster Kantorek.
In November 1916, when Remarque was eighteen and a third-year student at Osnabruck’s Lehrerseminar (teachers college), he was drafted for World War I. After basic training at the Westerberg in Osnabruck (the Klosterberg of All Quiet), he was assigned to a reserve battalion, but often given leave to visit his seriously ill mother. In June 1917, he was assigned to a trench unit near the Western Front. He was a calm, self-possessed soldier, and when his classmate Troske was wounded by grenade splinters, Remarque carried him to safety. He was devastated when Troske died in the hospital of head wounds that had gone unnoticed. Still, he rescued another comrade before he himself was severely injured–also by grenade splinters–and sent to the St. Vincenz hospital in Duisburg for much of 1917-1918. He was there when his mother died in September 1917. A year later, still grieving for her, he returned to Osnabruck for further training. After the war he substituted her middle name, Maria, for his own, Paul.
The war ended before Remarque could return to active service, but even though he had not experienced frontline fighting at its worst, the war had changed his attitudes forever. He had learned to realize the value–and fragility–of each individual life, and had become disillusioned with a patriotism that ignored the individual. To him and many of his companions, civilian careers no longer held any meaning.
The next few years in Germany brought shortages, profiteering, runaway inflation, unemployment, riots, and extremist politics–including the rise of National Socialism from the postwar German Workers Party, a group almost fanatic in stressing nationalism. For lack of anything better to do, Remarque and several friends returned to the Seminar, but they found the studies and the older teachers’ attitudes ridiculous. Remarque became involved in many disputes. For example, to ridicule the town authorities for their continued belief in the glory of war, he had himself photographed with his dog for the local paper–he in an officer’s uniform decorated with two Iron Crosses and other medals. The scandalized Osnabruck officials demanded a public apology.
Still, at graduation he was given the customary letter of recommendation (although it did describe him as more freethinking than the average teacher), and in June 1919 he began two years’ work as a substitute for teachers on leave. He was blond, strikingly goodlooking, and very muscular, and managed to dress elegantly whatever his income. He stayed out of politics but became interested in all sports, especially cars and racing. Finally, bored with teaching, he wandered from job to job: playing organ on Sundays in an insane asylum, working for a tombstone firm, working as a small-town drama critic, writing advertising copy for an automotive firm. He married an actress, Jutta Ilse Zambona, in 1925, shortly after taking a job in Berlin as associate editor of the illustrated magazine, Sport im Bild, and became a regular in Berlin society, often sporting a monocle, superficially happy.
Early in 1920, as Erich Remark, he published a novel so poorly received that the embarrassment caused him to adopt his great grandfather’s spelling of Remarque. His journalistic writing was stiff often mediocre and overly sentimental. Thus, the great success of his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929, astonished him and everyone else. He hadn’t even set out to write a bestseller but had written, instead, to rid himself of the bleak moods that he and his friends were still experiencing. “The shadow of war hung over us,” he said, “especially when we tried to shut our minds to it.” The result, known in German as Im Westen nichts Neues, deeply moved people on both sides of the Atlantic who were also still seeking to make sense of the war.
In its first year, German readers alone bought more than one million copies of All Quiet; and the British, French, and Americans bought thousands more. The novel also attained success as an American motion picture. (One of the first “talkies,” the film, starring Lew Ayres and Lewis Wolheim, is still considered a classic. A 1979 made-for-television version starred Richard Thomas as Paul, Patricia Neal as Mrs. Baumer, and Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky.) By 1932 All Quiet had been translated into 29 languages, and the unknown journalist had been transformed into a world-famous author.
Despite its popularity, the book generated a storm of controversy. Some people charged that Remarque had written solely to shock and to sell. Others called the book sentimental pacifism. The Nazis chose to read it as an attack on the greatness of the German nation. Ignoring the book as literature, they spread rumors to undermine Remarque’s popularity. They variously claimed that he was a French Jew, an old man who had never seen a battlefield, or the worthless son of millionaire parents. Remarque refused to comment, later telling an interviewer, “I was only misunderstood where people went out of their way to misunderstand me.”
During the controversy Remarque and his wife lived in Berlin. They were divorced in the early 1930s after the Nazis exiled him but remarried almost immediately so that Ilse, who suffered from tuberculosis, would not lose her Swiss residence permit. They lived separately until their final divorce in 1951.
Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet, based on his and his friends’ experiences after they returned from the front, was published in 1931. It was called Der Weg zuruck, or The Road Back. At the time, Remarque was neutral (or noncommittal) rather than a convinced anti-Nazi, but the sequel aroused further Nazi persecution. Goebbels, chief organizer of the witch-hunt, had first brought things to a head in 1930, when the American film version of All Quiet was screened in Berlin. His bands of Hitler Youth had rampaged through the theater hurling stink bombs, scattering white mice, and shouting, “Germany, awake!” The film was banned, and in 1931 Remarque was forced to leave Germany, where both his novels were thrown into the fire during the infamous bookburning of 1933.
Remarque commented in 1962, “I had to leave Germany because my life was threatened. I was neither a Jew nor orientated towards the left politically. I was the same then as I am today: a militant pacifist.” It is said that Goebbels later invited Remarque back, but that Remarque replied, “What? Sixty-five million people would like to get away and I’m to go back of my own free will? Not on your life!”
In 1932 German officials seized his Berlin bank account–supposedly for back taxes–but he had transferred most of his money as well as his Impressionist paintings to Switzerland, where he bought a villa at Porto Ronco on Lake Maggiore, gradually filling it with valuable antiques.
By the time Remarque was actually deprived of his German citizenship in 1938, his first three books had already been made into films in America and he was sometimes called the King of Hollywood. Until 1939 he divided his time between Porto Ronco and France; from 1939 to 1942 he rented a bungalow in Hollywood. His female companions included Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo; his male friends, Charles Chaplin, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. Eventually, he tired of the Hollywood glitter, and in 1942 began to divide his time between New York and Porto Ronco. In 1957 he received critical acclaim as an actor for his role in the film version of his novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die. In 1958 he married an American actress, Paulette Goddard, whom he had met in the 1940s.
When he first came to America in 1939, Remarque had none of the passport difficulties experienced by most German political exiles at that time. But he felt the injustices of his fellow countrymen deeply and described them fully in his novels. He applied for American citizenship in 1941, becoming a citizen after the time required by law. He loved America–especially the easygoing friendliness of the people–but never felt fully accepted by the Germans and always resented the loss of his German citizenship. Nor was he the only member of his family to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. In 1943 his younger sister Elfriede Scholz was beheaded for spreading subversive propaganda. He was deeply moved when Osnabruck named a street for her in 1968. In 1971 the authorities also named a section of road along the town walls the Erich-Maria-Remarque-Ring.
Wherever he was living he continued to write, and, despite his financial success and love of fine living, never forgot the lessons of World War I. His work eventually included 11 novels, all written in German but immediately translated and published in English as well. They developed themes first introduced in All Quiet. (Each is described in the Further Reading section of this guidebook.) Early in the 1950s Remarque returned briefly to Germany to collect material for a book, but he never returned to his hometown, even when attending his father’s funeral near there in 1956. He felt that the new city, rebuilt after World War II, wasn’t the town he had enshrined in All Quiet, The Road Back, and The Black Obelisk.
A series of heart attacks in the late 1960s obliged Remarque to choose Rome instead of New York for his winter quarters, and he lived there and in Porto Ronco until his death in a hospital in Locarno on September 25, 1970.
Tributes from the world press were varied, and sometimes stressed strange things. In his native Germany, the weekly journal Der Spiegel published an obituary that managed to omit his ever having written a great World War I novel. Remarque would not have been surprised. The news media had always been far more interested in his glamorous life than in his novels. But the public had bought more than 13 minion copies of his books. And All Quiet on the Western Front, accounting for 8 million in sales, is still one of the greatest European bestsellers of the 20th century.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: THE PLOT
All Quiet on the Western Front tells what happens to a group of German teenagers during World War I. The narrator is Paul Baumer. He and his classmates had patriotically marched off for recruitment, spurred on by the slogans of their teacher, Kantorek. But they find no glory in war.
As the story opens, 80 men have just returned from two weeks at the front. Seventy of their comrades may be dead or wounded, but their empty bellies concern them more. They nearly riot when the cook won’t dish out the food prepared for twice their number. But the commander steps in, and for once they eat their fill. Afterward, Paul and his friends visit their classmate Kemmerich, dying from a leg amputation. All Muller can talk about is who will get Kemmerich’s fine leather boots. The more sensitive Kropp laughs bitterly at Kantorek’s having called them Iron Youth.
Lounging around the next few days, Paul recalls the basic training methods of the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss. Cruel as he was, Himmelstoss did a lot more than Kantorek to toughen them for battle. Alone with Kemmerich, Paul can hardly bear it when his friend dies and all the orderly cares about is getting the bed cleared. Outraged at the senseless death of all such frail-looking boys, Paul nevertheless takes Kemmerich’s boots to Muller–they are of no use to Kemmerich now.
Soon, underfed replacements arrive. Katczinsky, a scavenger who could find a dinner roast in the Sahara, surprises everyone with beef and beans. He listens as Paul and his friends gleefully recall the night they trapped Himmelstoss with a bedsheet and soundly thrashed him, and joins in as they argue heatedly that the leaders simply ought to slug out their war with each other, while the soldiers watch them.
Horror descends anew the night they string barbed wire at the front. In the dark, the men instinctively avoid incoming shells, but the screaming of horses innocently caught in the bombardment chills them to the bone. When the shelling eases they trudge to a cemetery to wait for transport. Many nearly suffocate in a surprise gas attack, and after a new bombardment their stomachs turn at the sight of dead companions mixed with corpses from blown-up graves. At dawn they mindlessly return to camp.
Resting the next day, Paul’s group reluctantly conclude that war has ruined them. After their horrifying experiences, how can they ever again take jobs or studies seriously? Their spirits lift when Himmelstoss appears, sent to the front at last! Tjaden and Kropp openly insult him and leave him sputtering. When the matter is officially reviewed that evening, their light punishment is amply balanced by the lecture Himmelstoss gets on the idiocy of saluting at the front. Much later, Paul and Katczinsky slip off to a farm. Neither squawking goose nor growling bulldog thwarts Paul, and he and his comrade Katczinsky spend a companionable night roasting and eating their goose.
Then it’s back to rat-infested trenches at the front. At night they scramble for masks when the enemy sends gas; by day, they cower in stiffness to deceive observers in balloons. Terror is their companion through deafening barrages; Paul’s dugout survives a direct hit. One night the French infantry attack. All through the next day Paul’s company fights in a frenzy, the men armed only with grenades and sharpened shovels. For days, attacks and counterattacks alternate. Once Himmelstoss panics until Paul shouts sense into him and he plunges back into battle. Paul’s only relief is to dream of quiet cloisters. By the time the siege ends, only 32 men are left in the company.
Back at a field depot for reorganization, the men loaf and joke as if they hadn’t a care in the world. Thinking about their lost comrades would only drive them mad. Even Himmelstoss has changed. Not only did he rescue Westhus, who had been wounded, but, as substitute cook, he is slipping Paul’s group badly needed extra rations. Twice, Paul, Kropp, and another classmate, Leer, swim a closely guarded canal, not for the brief pleasures of a soldiers’ brothel but for the luxury of hours with three French girls. When Westhus dies after all, Paul–due for leave and temporary reassignment–wonders in agony who will be there when he returns.
On leave in his hometown, Paul relishes the way his classmate Mittelstaedt torments their old schoolmaster Kantorek, now a pitiful specimen of a soldier in the reserve unit Mittelstaedt commands. Nowhere is Paul comfortable. Duty drags him to visit Kemmerich’s mother, but his own sensitivity has been dulled by the carnage and he can’t begin to comprehend her hysterical grief over a single soldier. His own books and papers no longer comfort him, his civilian clothes don’t fit, old men lecture him on how they think the war is really going, and his mother, whom he adores, is seriously ill. So out of place does he feel that he is glad to report for duty at a nearby camp. There he often guards Russian prisoners of war, whom he begins to identify as men like himself and his comrades. The more he sees their suffering, the less he can grasp why he must call them enemy.
When Paul rejoins his company, he is relieved to find that all his closest friends have survived. Polishing is the order of the day; the troops are preparing for an inspection by the Kaiser. The whole ridiculous display leaves them burning with resentment at the blindness of their leaders. Up at the front again, Paul volunteers for a scouting mission with his friends. He is briefly separated from them in the dark trenches and panics until their distant voices steady him. Only comradeship sustains him now. Later, trapped by shelling, he blindly, repeatedly, stabs a French soldier who falls into his foxhole and must listen and watch for hours as the man’s life slowly ebbs. He is guilt stricken at having personally killed a plain soldier like himself. It takes the cool way the sniper Oellrich tallies up his kills to snap him back to front-line reality.
By sheer luck Paul’s entire group next find themselves guarding an abandoned village and supply dump. For two glorious weeks they lose themselves in feasting sleeping, and joking. Then, again by chance, both Paul and Kropp receive leg wounds while helping to evacuate a village. During their stay in a Catholic hospital, the wonder of clean sheets soon evaporates, and Paul discovers just how many ways a man can be killed–or maimed for life. The wards seem worse than the battlefield. Kropp’s leg is amputated, but Paul recovers.
After a short while Paul is back to animal existence at the front, except that conditions have grown even worse. Starved and short of supplies, the men are emaciated and their nerves so frayed that they are prone to snap at the slightest provocation. It takes only the wonder of cherry blossoms at the edge of a field to madden one man with thoughts of his farm: he deserts and is court martialed. Another, who stoically bore the screaming of the horses in the earlier battle, dies in an insane attempt to rescue a messenger dog.
As the summer of 1918 wears on, existence is reduced to a paralyzing round of filth, mud, disintegrating gear, dysentery, typhus, influenza–and battle. Muller, shot point blank in the stomach, gives Kemmerich’s boots to Paul–the boots are sturdy and may survive them all. When pleasure-loving Leer collapses of a hip wound, all Paul has left is his friend Katczinsky. Then even Katczinsky is wounded: his shin is shattered. Paul doggedly cames him far behind the lines to an aid station. But the medics can only shake their heads. Katczinsky has died on Paul’s back from a tiny splinter of shrapnel that freakishly pierced his head.
The months wear on to October, and Paul is alone. Back at the front after two weeks of rest for a trace of gas poisoning, he has nothing to hope for. He is killed on a day so quiet that the army report consists of a single line: “All quiet on the Western Front.”
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: PAUL BAUMER
Paul Baumer is the 19-year-old narrator of the story.
At the front, Paul’s special friends in Second Company include his classmates Behm, Kemmerich, Muller, Leer, and Kropp. The six of them were among 20 who enlisted together, prodded on by Schoolmaster Kantorek. Although he doesn’t say so, Paul is obviously a natural leader: Franz Kemmerich’s mother implored him to look after her son when they left home. Paul is also courageous. He may momentarily panic, but he doesn’t break under the most terrible battle conditions. He learns the sound of each type of shell; he dives for cover or grabs his gas mask at the right instant. In one battle, he gently comforts an embarrassed rookie who has soiled his underpants, and later soberly contemplates shooting the same man to spare him an agonizing death after his hip has been shattered.
Cool as he is in battle, though, Paul has a hard time making sense of it all. He keeps recalling Behm, the first of his class to die, and when a second–Kemmerich–dies, he rages inwardly at the senseless slaughter of scrawny schoolboys. The callous attitude of commanders and orderlies toward an individual death saddens and disillusions him. His elders were wrong–there is nothing glorious about war–but he has no new values to replace the patriotic myths they taught him.
At first his companions seem shallow to him–immediately forgetting the dead and turning their total attention to stockpiling the cigarets and food originally meant for the deceased soldier–and he is at pains to tell us why this callousness is necessary. Gradually, though, he comes to accept their approach: that poetry and philosophy and civilian paper-pushing jobs alike, all are utterly pointless in the midst of so much carnage. All you have is the moment at hand, and getting from it all the physical comfort you can is a worthwhile goal. There is another important element, too, to being with your comrades, as going on leave proves to Paul: no civilian understands you the way these men do, and nothing from your former life sustains you the way their friendship does. These values come together for Paul the evening he joins an older friend, Katczinsky, on a goose-hunting raid. They spend the night roasting the goose before eating it, and each time that Paul awakens for his turn at the basting, he feels Katczinsky’s presence like a cloak of comfort. At other times, panicked and alone in the dark of the trenches, all it takes to steady his nerves is the sound of his friends’ voices. If he awakens from a nightmare, the mere sound of their breathing strengthens him: he is not alone.
Paul gradually comes to realize that the enemy is no different from himself or from one of his friends. The Frenchman he kills in the trenches, Duval, looks like the kind of man whose friendship he would have enjoyed. The Russian prisoners he guards have the same feelings and desires and needs as he. He comes to see war as the ultimate horror. It’s bad enough that it pits man against man. But even animals and trees and flowers and butterflies are innocently caught up in the carnage inflicted by Man, the great Destroyer.
As his friends are killed one by one, Paul can only cling to his newfound beliefs in the brotherhood of all men and the value of the spark of life within each individual. At the end, alone, he has only the blind hope that his own mysterious inner spark will somehow survive and guide him after the war. Otherwise, he sees no meaningful future.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: KANTOREK
Kantorek is a provincial schoolmaster, an energetic little man with a face like a shrew. His whole life centers on the Prussian myth of Destiny: he believes with all his heart that war will bring his country greatness. He sees Paul and his schoolmates not as growing boys but as Iron Youth whose finest destiny lies in serving their Fatherland. His romantic notions change only when he is called up as a reservist and placed under the command of a former pupil named Mittelstaedt. He is a poor excuse of a soldier who shrinks emotionally when Mittelstaedt taunts him with his own former slogans. But even then, we never quite know him as a real human being. He is instead a pathetic illustration of all those elders whose values the young soldier comes to reject.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: CORPORAL HIMMELSTOSS
For most of the novel Himmelstoss is the stereotypical military man who becomes a tyrant in his own small sphere on the basis of a little rank. He sports a waxed mustache and is, like Kantorek, physically undersized. A mail carrier in civilian life, he lets power go to his head. As the corporal in charge of basic training for recruits, he becomes a sadistic drillmaster known as the Terror of Klosterberg. He takes a special dislike to Paul and his friends, being sensitive enough to detect their quiet defiance, and earns the beating they give him one night after trapping him in a bedsheet. Later Himmelstoss is himself assigned to the front, to Paul’s company. Before his first battle, he is the same pompous strutter as always, but during the siege he falls into momentary shell shock. Paul snaps him out of it and Himmelstoss fights bravely, together with his former recruits, even rescuing a friend of Paul. He emerges from battle so changed that he uses his influence to slip Paul’s group extra rations.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: STANISLAUS KATCZINSKY
Katczinsky, known as Kat, is a 40-year-old, down-to-earth soldier with bent shoulders, blue eyes, and a scraggly mustache. In civilian life he was a cobbler or shoemaker, but he knew a little about all trades. In war he becomes the leader of Paul’s group, a welcome substitute for all those older men whose twisted values brought on the war. Despite their differences in age and experience, he forms an especially warm friendship with Paul. Sharp, tough, and resourceful, Kat is unequaled at finding excellent food in the most unlikely places. He is shrewd and cunning–the embodiment of the practical man who can turn his inventive imagination to use in any situation. In the summer of 1918, when Paul is carrying Kat to an aid station for treatment of a shin wound, they recall how Kat once similarly rescued Paul. They reach the station but Kat is dead–killed on Paul’s back by a stray splinter to his head. This loss of the last of his friends drains Paul of his one remaining source of comfort at the front.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: FRANZ KEMMERICH
The second of Paul’s classmates to be killed, Kemmerich dies in great pain after a leg amputation. He had been excellent at gymnastics, but even after a year at the front he is still a slender boy. His nearness to death makes his face look childlike again. His dreams of a simple, peaceful life of forestry work die with him, and Paul trembles with rage at the wastefulness of war. All supplies being scarce at the front, Kemmerich’s well-made leather boots are a prize passed on first to Muller and later to Paul. Since they originally came from a downed English flier, the boots become a tangible symbol both of brotherhood and of death as they move from man to man.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: MULLER
Another volunteer and classmate of Paul, Muller still dreams of passing school examinations. Even during bombardment he mutters propositions in physics. Muller, with his protruding teeth and booming laugh, is a practical man, coarsened by the war. He eats all that is available in anticipation of lean times and asks for Kemmerich’s boots even before the unfortunate soldier realizes he is dying. (Muller is indeed the first to inherit the boots and later gives them to Paul before dying of a stomach wound.) His transforming a comrade’s death into a chance for good boots is one of the first shocking instances we see of what war does to men.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: LEER
Also a volunteer and one of Paul’s classmates, Leer shows an interesting mixture of a keen interest in mathematics and an obsession with women. Bearded and battle-hardened, he appears to be at least 40 years old. He claims the blond as his own when he, Paul, and Kropp visit the three French girls. He collapses of a hip wound in the summer of 1918 and bleeds to death within two minutes. Paul thinks, regretfully, what little use his math is now.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: TJADEN
Tjaden is a former locksmith with a sharp, thin appearance and an enormous appetite. He is Paul’s age, though not one of his classmates. When we first meet him, he is ready to pick a fight with the cook who does not want to serve 80 men the food prepared for twice as many. Because of a bladder problem, Tjaden was considered lazy by Himmelstoss, who persecuted him in basic training. He is bolder at the front, however. He is a fine enough companion in fighting and joking, but Paul and Leer and Kropp dump him when they visit the French girls.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: DETERING
Detering is a one-dimensional stereotype of the simple, peace-loving peasant. He constantly dreams of his home, his wife, and his farm, and cares little for philosophy or military doctrine. In the spring of 1918, surrounded by battlefield carnage, he is driven nearly mad by the sight of cherry blossoms. They unlock his memories of growing things and, losing all caution, he deserts. He is caught and court martialed.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: ALBERT KROPP
A classmate, volunteer, and special friend of Paul, Kropp is a small man. Since he is regarded as the best thinker in the class, no one is surprised that he is the first to make lance-corporal. In group discussions he is the one who offers profound solutions and comments. It is Kropp, for instance, who suggests turning war into a public festival, with the generals fighting it out in an arena while the common people sit and watch. It is also Kropp who sums up their youth, their disillusionment, and their lack of training for the future by observing, “The war has ruined us for everything.” With Paul he is sent to a Catholic hospital behind the lines because of wounds suffered during the evacuation of a village. Scheduled to receive an artificial limb after a leg amputation, he withdraws into long periods of sober silence.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: HAIE WESTHUS
Westhus is a 19-year-old peat digger with hands so huge that in one he can conceal a loaf of bread. He operates as Katczinsky’s executive on foraging expeditions, and, on the whole, prefers army life to cutting sod. The army gives him food and a place to sleep, and in peacetime would offer what he considers nice, clean work. He is the one member of Paul’s group who plans to reenlist after the war but dies of a back wound after being rescued by Himmelstoss.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: BULCKE
The fat First Company cook, he is willing to trundle his pots right up to the front lines for his men. He provides a contrast with Ginger.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: GINGER
The red-headed Second Company cook is more concerned with his personal safety and regulations than with feeding the men. His pettiness contrasts with Bulcke’s courage and generosity.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: JOSEF BEHM
One of Paul’s classmates, Behm is a plump, homely volunteer who dies two months before he would have been drafted. Wounded in the eye, he is shot down while blindly attempting to return to safety. His death greatly affects his classmates. Later, Mittelstaedt upbraids Kantorek with the fact that had it not been for his marching the whole class down to enlist, Behm would have had at least two more months to live.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: LIEUTENANT BERTINCK
Paul’s company commander, Bertinck is a fine officer who came up through the ranks. He bears Himmelstoss’s complaint and treats Tjaden and Kropp as fairly as possible. He dies saving his companions from an approaching enemy team using a flamethrower.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: HEINRICH BREDEMEYER
Bredemeyer is a soldier and fellow townsman of Paul who tells Paul’s mother about the increasing dangers in the front lines. His tactlessness makes Paul’s first leave more miserable than it might otherwise have been.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: FRAU (MRS.) BAUMER
Paul’s mother is a courageous woman who is dying of cancer. She is the most comforting person Paul finds at home. She alone does not pretend to understand what it is like at the front. Paul is in agony over her illness and is overwhelmed by the love she shows him by preparing his favorite foods and depriving herself in order to buy him fine underwear.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: FRAU (MRS.) KEMMERICH
Unlike Paul’s quiet mother, Franz Kemmerich’s mother tends to weep and wail. She had unreasonably expected Paul to watch out for her son, Franz, and blames him for surviving while Franz died. The two mothers show different reactions to the brutality of war.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: MITTELSTAEDT
This classmate of Paul takes revenge on schoolmaster Kantorek when the latter is assigned to the home guard unit Mittelstaedt commands. Once Kantorek had held Mittelstaedt’s future in his hands by his potential influence in connection with examinations. Aware now that survival is more important than any test, Mittelstaedt ridicules Kantorek, even using the schoolmaster’s favorite phrases.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: BOETTCHER
The former porter at Paul’s school becomes a model reserve soldier. Mittelstaedt sends him on errands through town with the former schoolmaster, Kantorek, who is an impossible soldier, so that everyone may enjoy the irony of the reversal of roles: the nobody is now the teacher.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: GERARD DUVAL
Duval is a French printer with a wife and child. The soldier Paul instinctively stabs after he falls into Paul’s shell hole. Paul’s horror grows as he waits hours for Duval to die, and then learns the facts of his life from his wallet. Duval is a pleasant-looking man, and now he is dead at Paul’s own hand. Guilt nearly drives Paul mad before a slowdown in the firing finally allows him to leave the shell hole.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: SERGEANT OELLRICH
In contrast to Paul, Oellrich is a sniper who is proud of his ability to pick off enemy soldiers. Katczinsky and Kropp point him out to Paul to shock him back to the reality of front-line warfare after Paul has killed Duval. Oellrich boasts about how his human targets jump when he hits them, and Katczinsky and Kropp remind Paul that the man will probably get a decoration or promotion if he keeps shooting so well.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: JOSEF HAMACHER
Hamacher is a popular soldier in Paul and Kropp’s hospital ward. He can get away with anything because of a “shooting license,” a paper stating that he experiences periods of mental derangement.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: LITTLE PETER
Another patient, Peter is small and has black, curly hair. His lung injury is so serious that he is sent to the Dying Room, a room located next to the elevator to the morgue. He vows to return–and does, to everyone’s amazement.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: SISTER LIBERTINE
Sister Libertine is one of the nurses at the hospital where Paul and Albert are patients. Unlike some of the callous medics and surgeons, and even the other serious-minded nuns, she spreads good cheer throughout her entire wing of the hospital. The men would do anything for her.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: FRANZ WACHTER
Wachter dies in the hospital. Unable to get anyone to take care of his hemorrhaging arm wound, he makes Paul realize that patients can die just from neglect.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: THE THREE FRENCH GIRLS
Three girls live in a house across the river from a German camp. Paul, Kropp, and Leer swim a closely guarded canal to spend two evenings with them. Leer’s favorite is the blond; Paul’s girl is the little brunet. She is not particularly concerned that he is going on leave. Considering the shortages, she will welcome any decent soldier, whatever his uniform, if he can also bring food.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: BERGER
Berger is the strongest soldier in Paul’s company. At one time he stoically listened while the screaming horses died, but by the end of the war his protective shell has grown as thin as anyone else’s. He loses all judgement and insanely tries to rescue a wounded messenger dog two hundred yards off. He dies of a pelvis wound in the attempt.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: KAISER WILHELM
William II (1859-1941), or Kaiser Wilhelm, who briefly appears to inspect troops, is a figure from world history. Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia from 1888 to 1918, he was the son of Frederick III and a grandson of both William I of Germany and Queen Victoria of England. When he was a young man, his parents rejected his belief in the divine right of kingship and disliked his impulsiveness and love of military display. These traits have often been explained as his attempts to compensate for a withered left arm. His visit to the troops in this novel shows both his love of military display and his lack of an imposing physical appearance.
His goal was to make Germany a major world power, and he was the dominant force in his own government. He loved foreign travel but often spoke impulsively and insulted other heads of state. His actions helped drive Great Britain into an alliance with France. He engaged in the famous “Willy-Nicky” correspondence with Czar Nicholas of Russia, but undermined the friendship by supporting Austria in policies offensive to Russia. He strained relationships with France by interfering in colonial affairs in Morocco. Alarmed at the growing isolation of Germany, he allied his country with Austria, Italy, and Turkey.
His power declined after the outbreak of the First World War. His abdication was one of the peace requirements demanded by the Allies in 1918.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: SETTING
The story told in All Quiet on the Western Front occurs during the two years just before the Armistice ended World War I in November 1918. In Chapters 1 and 2 we learn that Paul Baumer, the narrator, and his friend Kat had been together three years–one year longer than the time period covered by the novel.
By 1916 when the story begins, World War I had already been underway for two years. It broke out in August 1914 between the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, and later the United States) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany). In June 1914 Austrian Archduke Frances Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated at Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, leading to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. German leaders, alarmed at Russian mobilization and eager to establish the Reich as a power on a par with Britain, declared war on both of Germany’s neighbors, Russia and France. They also refused to guarantee the neutrality of Belgium. Great Britain, in turn, declared war on Germany in response to the threat to British allies. At the time, Paul and his classmates would have been 16-year-old schoolboys.
German desire to become a major power was nothing new. Prussian beliefs included the idea that Germany had to be a military state because it lacked natural protective boundaries. The Prussian goal was to make Germany a glittering, well-organized, self-confident machine. The idea that Paul rejects–18-year-olds as Iron Youth–fits perfectly into this Prussian mentality.
From the beginning, World War I was fought in two areas, named for their geographical relationship to Germany. The Eastern Front extended into Russia, and the Western Front extended through Belgium into northern France. Germany hoped to knock out France in six weeks and then turn its full strength against Russia. The Allies, however, soon halted the German army at the Marne River, and the war in the West settled down to four years of trench warfare–the static or at a standstill kind of war described in the discussion of Chapter 6 in this guidebook.
In All Quiet, Paul describes a battle with the French in Chapter 6 and then, a short time later, is assigned to a camp (Chapter 8) where he guards Russian prisoners of war. Although he does not name the exact locations for the military offensives he describes–after all, the place names had little to do with life and death–the offensive in Chapter 6 could have been the French attack in 1917 at Aisne and Champagne. That offensive failed, with heavy French losses.
Meanwhile, behind the Fronts, all resources were being directed toward winning the war. At first, military methods used were mostly those from earlier wars–infantry, cavalry, and artillery–but this war boosted production of tanks, planes, machine guns, high-explosive shells, flamethrowers, and poison gas. The strong industrial push left little for civil life, and economies and governments were shattered all over Europe. Forced drafts of men, food shortages, attacks on civilian populations, and hysteria reached heights never before seen.
It is during this final period that the last few chapters of All Quiet occur.
By late 1917 Germany had won the war in the East. In March 1918, Russia signed the harsh treaty of Brest-Litovsk, giving Germany huge chunks of its territory. Russia’s withdrawal enabled Germany to transfer forces from the East and to mount a supreme effort to capture Paris. But by this time the United States was entering the war, and timing was essential to the German plan: the offensive had to succeed before American troops could reach the Western Front in sizable numbers. Ludendorff, the German leader who directed the operation, was prepared to lose one minion men to win. He poured his efforts onto the British sector. The situation became so desperate that the Allies stopped arguing among themselves and established a unified command under Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Nevertheless, at its height the German offensive came within 40 miles of Paris. Then in May 1918 American divisions poured in, and the Allies fought back furiously. In July they broke through the new German lines and swept the Central Powers back toward the pre-1914 frontiers.
In the fall of 1918, German allies began to surrender–in September the Bulgarians, in October the Turks. One by one, ethnic minorities within Austria-Hungary began to proclaim independence, and on November 3 the Austrians capitulated. Germans were demoralized, and mutinies broke out in German fleets. There were revolts among civilians in Kiel and Hamburg. In early November the German king or emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, fled to Holland. Finally, on November 11, 1918, a German delegation appeared at Allied headquarters to request an armistice.
Overall, the war was fought at tremendous cost. Most tragic was the loss in lives. Known dead included 1.8 million German soldiers and more than one million men each from Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Even the U.S., latecomer to the war, lost more than 100,000 men. Actual fatalities have been estimated as high as 13 million. In addition, nearly 22 million men were wounded, 7 million of them permanently disabled or mutilated. More than 9 million civilians were also killed.
The world of 1919 was stunned and uncertain. Ten years later the mood still lingered. People wanted to understand what had happened but could not. It is in that atmosphere that Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front appeared.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: THEMES
In the short note that comes just before Chapter 1, Remarque lets us know exactly what theme he intends. He says that All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a generation of young men who were destroyed by World War I–even if they survived the shelling. To arrive at a fifth statement of this main theme, Remarque weaves several related themes into the story. The outline that follows points out chapters you can read to see how he presents each idea.
1. THE HORROR OF WAR
Remarque includes discussions among Paul’s group, and Paul’s own thoughts while he observes Russian prisoners of war (Chapters 3, 8, 9) to show that no ordinary people benefit from a war. No matter what side a man is on, he is killing other men just like himself, people with whom he might even be friends at another time.
But Remarque doesn’t just tell us war is horrible. He also shows us that war is terrible beyond anything we could imagine. All our senses are assaulted: we see newly dead soldiers and long-dead corpses tossed up together in a cemetery (Chapter 4); we hear the unearthly screaming of the wounded horses (Chapter 4); we see and smell three layers of bodies, swelling up and belching gases, dumped into a huge shell hole (Chapter 6); and we can almost touch the naked bodies hanging in trees and the limbs lying around the battlefield (Chapter 9).
The crying of the horses is especially terrible. Horses have nothing to do with making war. Their bodies gleam beautifully as they parade along–until the shells strike them. To Paul, their dying cries represent all of nature accusing Man, the great destroyer.
In later chapters Paul no longer mentions nature as an accuser but seems to suggest that nature is simply there–rolling steadily on through the seasons, paying no attention to the desperate cruelties of men to each other. This, too, shows the horror of war, that it is completely unnatural and has no place in the larger scheme of things.
2. A REJECTION OF TRADITIONAL VALUES
In his introductory note Remarque said that his novel was not an accusation. But we have seen that it is, in many places, exactly that. This accusation–or rejection of traditional militaristic values of Western civilization–is impressed on the reader through the young soldiers, represented by Paul and his friends, who see military attitudes as stupid and who accuse their elders of betraying them.
In an early chapter Paul admits that endless drilling and sheer harassment did help toughen his group and turn them into soldiers. But he points out, often, how stupid it is to stick to regulations at the front–how insane this basic military attitude becomes in life-and-death situations. One such scene occurs in Chapter 1 when Ginger, the cook, doesn’t want to let 80 men eat the food prepared for 150, no matter how hungry they are. Another occurs in Chapter 7 when Paul is walking around in his hometown and a major forces him to march double time and salute properly–a ridiculous display, considering what he has just been through at the front. The emptiness of all this spit and polish shows up again in Chapter 9 when the men have to return the new clothes they were issued for the Kaiser’s inspection: rags are what’s real at the front.
The betrayal of the young by their elders becomes an issue on several occasions. In the first two chapters of the book we learn how misguided Paul was by the teachings of parents and schoolmasters. We also see how older people cling to the Prussian myth of the glory of military might when Paul goes home on leave in Chapter 7. The Kaiser’s visit in Chapter 9 adds some hints of Remarque’s specific disillusionment with the leaders of his own country. From a broad study of literature and world history, we can see that these older people were not individually to blame for their views. They were simply handing on what was handed on to them. Still, we can also understand why Paul and his friends are so bitterly disappointed and so angry to discover that their elders were wrong. Most readers feel a little sad that young men should consider the act of ridiculing adults their greatest goal in life, but we can also understand why they take revenge on Himmelstoss and Kantorek (Chapters 3 and 7). We even get a certain kick out of what they do, understanding their need to take out their disappointment on someone they know. These situations are, in miniature, an acting out of the bitter anger and disillusionment Paul feels when he says in Chapter 10, “It must all be lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out.”
3. FRIENDSHIP: THE ONLY ENDURING VALUE
The theme of comradeship occurs often and gives the novel both lighthearted and sad moments. In Chapter 5 it’s easy to overlook how the farmer felt about having his property stolen and to chuckle aloud when Paul is struggling to capture the goose! We appreciate the circle of warmth that encloses him and Kat that night as they slowly cook and eat the goose, and then extend their warm circle by sharing the leftovers with Kropp and Tjaden. In Chapter 10 we enjoy their sharing of the pancakes and roast pig and fine club chairs at the supply dump, and we understand why Paul fakes a high temperature to go to the same hospital as Albert Kropp.
Friendship emerges as an even more important theme at the front. In Chapters 10 and 11 we see men helping wounded comrades at great personal risk–or even, like Lieutenant Bertinck, dying for their friends. The handing on of Kemmerich’s fine yellow leather boots also acts as a symbol of friendship–a symbol we can almost touch, and one that keeps us aware of how deeply a soldier feels the loss of each of his special friends. We can understand how hearing the voices of friends when one is lost (Chapter 9) or even just hearing their breathing during the night (Chapter 11) can keep a soldier going. We grieve with Paul and almost put down the book when Kat dies.
4. A GENERATION DESTROYED BY WORLD WAR I
Taking all of the themes together and adding Paul and his friends’ hopeless discussions of what is left for them to do after the war (Chapter 5), we can conclude that Remarque succeeds in his main theme: showing that Paul’s generation was destroyed by the Great War, as World War I was then called.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: STYLE AND STRUCTURE
All Quiet on the Western Front is, on the whole, a very serious and even a grim novel. Remarque presents his message through vivid description and imagery. The tone is not overwhelmingly bitter.
Two things stand out in Remarque’s style: his vivid word pictures and the way he balances contrasting scenes against each other to make each one stand out.
His descriptions bring every chapter to life, whether he is showing us the glare of flares or the darkness beyond the trenches, vicious rats or itchy lice, the steady drumlike beat of bombardment or the piercing shrieks of shells and wounded. His descriptions also include images of beauty and peace–usually in Paul’s thoughts–that make clear how awful the front actually is. He converts a pair of boots, a goose, and the circle of light cast by campfires into symbols of friendship. And he uses similes to show the brutality of war: the men fight like thugs, like wild beasts. The tanks push relentlessly forward like steel beasts squashing bugs.
CH FAR FROM THE FRONT NEAR THE FRONT AT THE FRONT
1 Recollections: Second Company,
school, Kantorek. down to 80 men,
2 Recollections: Kemmerich’s death
Himmelstoss, in a field hospital.
basic training The boots.
3 Reminiscences: Kat’s skill at
Himmelstoss. foraging. Theories
4 Barbed wire
to Himmelstoss. Lack
of post-war goals.
The goose incident.
6 Days upon days
Company down to
32 men. Westhus
7 Paul home on The evening with
leave. the French girls.
8 Paul guarding the
9 The Kaiser’s visit. Paul’s killing
of Duval in the
10 The hospital. The supply dump.
Kropp left behind.
11 Starvation, lack
12 Paul’s death on
a quiet day.
Remarque’s use of contrast, gives a new meaning to the phrase “theater of war.” He keeps us moving between the trenches and the rest of the world. Even if Paul’s hometown is suffering from war shortages, life there is safe and comfortable compared with the front. Even the hospital, filled with wounded, offers clean sheets and regular food–luxuries unimaginable at the front lines. These contrasts help us to understand what is happening to the emotional life of the young soldier.
The above chart will help you see more clearly how Remarque uses contrasts. The first part of All Quiet dwells on what happened at home, far from the front, and what it is like near the front. The middle chapters actually take us to the front and then pull us back several times–to civilian life, to a camp behind the lines, to a supply dump, to a hospital–so that we too feel the shock when we return, in the final chapters, to the unrelieved pressures of the front.
Finally, Remarque’s style includes irony. We fully appreciate how little value is attached to a single human life by 1918 when we read the army report on the progress of the war on the day Paul dies: “All quiet on the Western Front.”
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: POINT OF VIEW
Stories usually are told from the first person or the third person point of view. We get these terms from grammar. “I love” is a first person structure, “you love” is second person, and “he (or she) loves” is third person. A story is told in the first person when the narrator says that I or we are doing thus-and-so: someone actually in the story is telling it. A third person story uses the he or they approach; some unnamed person outside the story is observing others doing something.
Except for the very last two paragraphs of the book, All Quiet on the Western Front is written from the first person point of view. The story is being told by someone who is actually in it–Paul Baumer–not by some invisible outsider. Remarque does switch to third person in the last two paragraphs for an obvious reason: Paul cannot report his own death.
First person narration always has both advantages and disadvantages. A big advantage is that we tend to identify with the main character. In All Quiet we feel as if we are right there with Paul, experiencing what he is seeing and hearing and feeling. We almost think his thoughts, share his ideas. First person narration makes the whole story seem direct and real and honest.
On the other hand, first person narration also limits us to knowing and seeing only what the narrator–in this case, Paul–knows and sees. We get other news and views and opinions only as he filters them and reports them to us.
In the case of All Quiet, Paul is young and immature. Until he enlisted, he had never experienced real pain or tragedy in his life. Older people generally know from experience that human beings can survive incredible pain and still find meaning in life. Paul hasn’t had any time to gain that kind of experience to sustain him. Therefore it’s asking quite a bit to have us accept, from him, whole theories about war and life and the nature of human beings. Still, whatever Paul might lack in age or experience is balanced for us by the honesty and sensitivity we see in him.
Over all, then, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the advantages of first person narration outweigh the disadvantages. There is a perfect fit of first person point of view with what Remarque wanted to say about World War I–that it destroyed a whole generation of the young. How better to show us that than to let us experience the war through the eyes of a young soldier?
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: FORM
When critics use the word form to discuss a novel, they sometimes mean its overall style and structure–the elements already presented under that heading in this guidebook. Another meaning of form is the category a novel falls into–how it should be classified, what kind of fiction it is.
You yourself use from in this narrow, second meaning when you say that you like to read mysteries or westerns or romances or some other kind of story. But if someone asked you what kind of book All Quiet is, you would find that it just doesn’t fit standard classifications. You might say it’s a war story–but it’s a lot more than that. It’s also a story about a boy turning into a disillusioned adult, or perhaps a story telling society that it ought to eliminate the great evil of war. The standard categories simply do not express all that.
The best term for a novel in which everything depends on a specific war setting is historical novel. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, is an example. All Quiet does happen during World War I, but Remarque doesn’t dwell on historical details such as names of battles. Instead he concentrates much more on what any war does to people.
Usually a novel in which a young person matures by passing through some kind of crisis is called a novel of formation or a novel of initiation. This fits Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, in which Henry Fleming starts out as a naive boy, expecting war to be glorious, only to find how terrible it is. It also fits All Quiet to some extent, but not as well–by the time the book begins, Paul has already become disillusioned enough to call 70 deaths a “miscalculation.”
If you see All Quiet as a novel telling society something wrong ought to be changed–in this case, war–you could try sociological novel, but again the label seems somehow off. It fits a book against slavery like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin but seems to express only one element of All Quiet.
All in all, form as classification is simply too narrow and artificial for this book. With All Quiet, you are better off using the word form in its broad senses meaning style and structure. All Quiet can be described as a novel made up of dramatic scenes, vivid language, and a series of contrasting episodes that make us feel how totally destructive war is.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: AUTHOR’S NOTE
Remarque begins his book with a note before the first chapter. In it he says that his book “is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure,” but rather an account of a generation of young men who were destroyed by the war–World War I–”even though they may have escaped its shells.”
What does he mean? Biography and history tell us his situation. By 1929 when his book came out, World War I had been over for ten years, but it was still affecting people like him and his friends, who had gone from the schoolroom right into the trenches. Many of them survived, but they felt as if a shadow still hung over their lives. After all that time, they still hadn’t been able to sort out their feelings about the war.
Remarque says that he doesn’t want to accuse or blame anyone, that he certainly doesn’t have anything new to confess, and that he is definitely not trying to write an adventure story–the kind of war story that’s full of heroes and waving flags.
If all of that is what we should not expect, then what should we expect? Well, if he means what he says, he’s going to let the story itself show us just exactly what was so destructive about World War I. Maybe it’s the deaths of friends; maybe it’s the loss of ideals. We’ll need to read the book to find out. But we can expect every chapter to tell us something to support his theme: that the First World War destroyed even those who came through it alive.
^^^^^^^^^^ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: CHAPTER 1
The very first paragraph takes us within five miles of the front lines. The men are resting on the ground, having just stuffed themselves with beef and beans (the cook is stiff dishing out more). There are double rations of bread and sausage besides, and tobacco is so plentiful that everyone can get his preference–cigarets, cigars, or chews. Whoever is telling the story is right there, in it; this is what is called first person narration. But the narrator (we soon find out that he’s 19 years old and his name is Paul Baumer) makes clear that the whole situation is incredible:–”We have not had such luck as this for a long time.”
Where did the windfall come from? Paul says, “We have only a miscalculation to thank for it.” It turns out that the quartermaster sent, and the cook prepared, food for the full Second Company–150 men. But 70 were killed at the end of a quiet two-week mission when the English suddenly opened up with high-explosive field guns.
Before we can stop to think about Paul’s dismissing all those deaths as a miscalculation, he backs up to tell the whole story of how they nearly had to riot to get all that food and tobacco. The cook, it seems, didn’t care about the count; he just didn’t want to give any man more than a single share. In the course of retelling how their noise brought the company commander, who finally ordered the cook to serve everything, Paul introduces all his friends.
They’re an assorted lot: first, three of his classmates from school–Muller, the bookworm, Albert Kropp, the sharp thinker, and bearded Leer who likes officers’ brothels. Then there are three other 19-year-olds: the skinny locksmith Tjaden, the farmer Detering, and the peat-digger Haie Westhus. Finally he names an older soldier–the group’s shrewd, 40-year-old leader, a man with a remarkable nose for food and soft jobs, Stanislaus Katczinsky.
NOTE: From their names we see that these major characters are German, but it really doesn’t matter. They could just as well be French or English, so far as their experiences are concerned.
At this point we don’t really know if Paul, the narrator, is as cold and unfeeling as he appears. He and his friends seem to care much more about food than about the lives of their companions. Is Remarque indirectly telling us that war reduces people to animals? Or are the men just being realistic? We’ll have to wait and see.
The day continues to be “wonderfully good,” says Paul, because their mail catches up with them. But one letter angers them. It’s from their schoolmaster, Kantorek, who pumped them all so full of the glory of fighting for their country that they marched down to the district commandant together and enlisted. The only one who had to be persuaded was homely Josef Behm, and he’s dead already–the first of their class to fall. Paul doesn’t blame Kantorek personally for Behm’s death, but he does blame the “thousands of Kantoreks” who were so sure their view of the coming war was the right one. We were only 18, he says; we trusted our teachers and our parents to guide us, and “they let us down so badly.” He seems to be saying that the war has cut them adrift from a meaningful life, with no new values to replace the old ones. All the young soldiers know for sure is that it’s good to have a full belly or a good smoke.
The friends go over to visit Franz Kemmerich, a classmate who is dying after a leg amputation. Muller turns out to be totally crude and tactless. Kemmerich is dying, and Muller rattles on about Kemmerich’s stolen watch and just who will get Kemmerich’s fine English leather boots. Paul, on the other hand, recalls Kemmerich’s mother, crying and begging Paul to look after Franz as they left for the front. To Paul, Kemmerich still looks like a child accidentally poured into a military uniform. Perhaps war hasn’t blunted his sensitivity yet, but Muller’s crudeness shocks us.
As they leave the dressing station, it is obvious that Kropp, like Paul, is still brimful of feelings. Erupting into anger, he hurls his cigaret to the ground and mutters, “Damned swine!” He is thinking of th