‘All quiet on the Western Front’ is Remarque’s recount of his experiences in World War 1. Unlike other war stories that glorify war and depict the soldiers as heroes, Remarque tells the story from a soldier’s point of view, highlighting the negativity of the war especially on the soldiers.
Through out the war, the soldiers get dehumanized and according to Paul, disconnecting themselves from their own humanity was the only way to survive the conditions in the war. He says that to the soldiers, a blast is “like a blow from the paw of a raging beast of prey” (Remarque 3). Amidst all the dehumanization that the soldiers had to go through, there were some instances during the war that the harsh conditions compelled the soldiers to revert to humanity.
The brutality of war
Erich Maria Remarque displays the effects of war on the soldiers through the characters, particularly Paul Baumer. Paul is introduced to the reader as an innocent young soldier who gradually gets dehumanized in the course of the war. Paul explains that they realized how horrible the war was. “We reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals” (Remarque 56).
Paul tries to explain how the soldiers had to disconnect from their human side just to be able to cope with the war. The effects of the war were too harsh for the soldiers to cope therefore, in an effort to preserve their humanity; they hid it behind their primal state. This shows how much the soldiers disliked the war and its effects on their psyche. The war made the soldiers aware of the importance of preservation of their human nature.
In the course of the war, the soldiers realized that their major battle was “against the war itself” rather than against their enemies (Remarque 103). This realization changed the view of war that the soldiers had and if it was up to them, disputes would be resolved using other avenues. This realization made them more human than they were when signing up for the war.
When Paul gets to go home for a short while, the fact that he is unable to interact with his family saddens him. “I stand on the steps, miserable, helpless, paralyzed, and against my will the tears run down my cheeks” (Remarque 158). His crying showed that he still had humanity left in him and his emotions got the better of him once in a while.
His mother was ailing with cancer at the time and this saddened Paul. He felt a need to connect with his mother but he is unable to communicate. The only thing he is able to say is ““Ah, Mother, Mother” (Remarque 183). This attempt shows he was touched by his mother’s illness and was willing to connect with her. He still had human feelings of sadness.
The effect of isolation
Isolation is one of the major problems that the soldiers faced during the war. First, they were isolated from their families when they joined the army and were sent off to war. Secondly, death was a common occurrence to the soldiers so they became accustomed to loosing people they had seen and lived with for a long time.
Isolation made the soldiers yearn for human friendship. One time Paul highlights an argument between Kropp and Katczinsky about how the war should be dealt with. “They lay a bottle of beer on the result of an air-fight that’s going on above” (Remarque 41). This shows that they were bored and longed for companionship. The isolation evoked the common human need for closeness.
At first when they were new to the war, the death of a friend greatly affected the soldiers. Paul is devastated when his school friend, Kemmerich dies. Paul was the last of his friends to die and he died shortly after his last friend died. Since he had been left alone, he had no reason to live. When he died, he “had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” (Remarque 296).
During the war, Paul highlights the importance of friendship. He has many friends in the war whose characters are similar to his. They are very close to each other; his friends are like family to him. Friends kept each other company and watched each others backs. They made life worth living.
When Paul gets to go home for a few days, he longs to be with his wartime friends rather than his family. He had become more accustomed to life with his friends and did not know how to live without them. He tries to read since he loved to read before the war but he is still not satisfied.
He says, “Words, Words, Words…they do not reach me” (Remarque 173). When the last of his friends, Kat, was wounded in the war, Paul risked his life trying to save his life. When he did not live, Paul’s life lost meaning as he did not have any friends left. He died shortly after. The harsh conditions of the war forced the soldiers to seek companionship so as to keep each other strong through out the war.
The friendships made during the war were very strong; they were the only thing keeping the soldiers alive through the war. The soldiers were most human when they were with their friends. Paul at one point highlights that the Russian POWs are more “human and more brotherly towards one another…” showing that friends were humanly towards their friends in the war (Remarque169). This is possible the only time a soldier got to be in contact with his human emotions.
It is crystal clear that the war had a lot of negative effects on the soldiers and their psyche. During the argument between Kropp and Katczinsky when they were speculating on whether a German airplane will be shot down, they bet the result on a bottle of beer. When the German airplane was shot down, “Kropp lost the bottle of beer” (Remarque 43).
To them, the airplane crash was just another occurrence and they were not saddened by the death of the pilot. They could no longer have normal relationships with their families and they did not have a chance at normal life after the war. They were accustomed to death.
Despite all these negative factors that seemed to wipe out the soldiers humanities, there were instances, though few, where the soldiers thought and acted in a humane manner. The friendships they formed were stronger than any friendships formed by lay men who have not been to the war. So strong were the friendships that Paul risked his own life in an attempt to save his friends life.
During Paul’s encounter with the three French ladies, all Paul can think of is other soldiers, his friends; “I wish I had never thought of them” (Remarque 150). The horror of the war made them reconsider their stand on conflict resolution using war. These humane moments of soldiers at war are an indication that one’s humanity can never be completely destroyed.
Remarque Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1929. Print.