Remarque’s account of the horrors of the Western Front in World War I, from the common German soldier’s perspective, is a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. Dehumanisation, death and destruction are the key themes are relayed through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a soldier in the Great War of 1914-1918 and the narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Dehumanisation is a key central theme in the novel, as the characters are transformed from young men into old men, from idealistic, patriotic youth into a coarse, violent group of state murderers who kill others mercilessly for their own survival, and, ultimately, from men with hopes and dreams to men with nothing to look forward to. Indeed, the balmy and gentle influences from parents, teachers and “the whole course of civilisation from Plato to Goethe” (16) are brushed away and hardcore, militaristic values of “saluting, eyes front… bloody-mindedness” (16) are instilled into the young men, who are sent off to confront the stark realities of war after their short training.
There is therefore a disjuncture between how the soldiers view the war and how those who do not participate in it view it. Kantorek, the schoolteacher, loudly extols the virtue of patriotism but does not see firsthand – as his students do – the consequences of that patriotism in war. The teacher is craven in blithely sending the students to their deaths while extolling empty virtues that are not reflected in the frontlines. The civilians at the home front are also unaware of what the front is like, yet call for the brave lads to win the war and bring back good news from Paris. They have absolutely no idea of what war is.
Baumer’s response to civilian ignorance is to realize that the civilians and soldiers actually live in two separate worlds. “We have turned into human animals,” (40) he states, suggesting not only that he and his fellow soldiers are no longer fully human but also that war turns all its participants into beasts. Later, Baumer and his comrade Detering witness horses become severely wounded during an attack. Detering, who deeply values horses, comments that “It is the most despicable thing of all to drag animals into a war” (45) because they are innocent of crimes and must suffer for human causes. If soldiers become like animals, as Baumer had stated, it is just as wrong to drag them into war as to bring horses into it.
Death is ever present in the novel, and there is massive physical and psychological destruction throughout the trenches. Soldiers die every day during prolonged shelling made especially lethal by poisonous gases. Death permeates all the novel’s scenes, including that in the hospital, whose occupants will not leave alive. The artillery attack on a graveyard, where the lives of the soldiers depend upon the coffins holding dead people, represents total destruction of respect and normalcy. Corpses there figuratively died more than once.
Destruction extends to the characters’ individual lives. The older men had jobs and occupations before the war, but the younger soldiers did not have anything to attach themselves to then. They have nothing to look forward to except torn and destroyed dreams, with no hope of progress or a future. They have no more “desire to conquer the world” and are “refugees… fleeing from ourselves” (63). Many of them, like the famous war veteran “Kat,” who survives everything only to die finally from an unnoticed shrapnel wound, do not make it out alive. Death and destruction do not spare even Paul Baumer himself.
Baumer dies as the dispatch declares “All quiet on the western front,” which calls to mind the desolation and sense of futility that accompany Baumer’s death. The destruction that Baumer and his comrades witnessed deprived them of life and hope. Thus Remarque’s novel, through its depiction of dehumanization, death and destruction, is a poignant lesson about the horror of war and its impact on generations.
Remarque, Erich Maria (2005). All Quiet on the Western Front. London: Vintage.