‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque: The Basics

This Resource is for Year 11 English students studying in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

The Author Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque was born in Osnabruck, Germany in 1898. He joined the German Army in 1916 to fight in World War 1, and was wounded. After the War ended in 1918, Remarque published his novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – ten years later in 1928.

The novel is very realistic about the harsh realities of being an ordinary soldier in war, including none of the usual glory propaganda. It was a firmly anti-war novel and became an instant international success. In 1930 a film based on the novel was released. As the German Nazi party rose to power and prominence, the novel was being attacked as being anti-German or unpatriotic in 1931, and the film was banned. In 1932 Remarque and his wife fled to Switzerland for protection and by 1933 the Nazi Party banned Remarque’s books and burned them on bonfires.

The fact that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is based on the German soldiers’ experiences during War highlights the universal suffering and futility that War brings.

The Novel in Context of World War I – 1914 – 1918 (Estimated 9.7 million military soldiers died)

The First World War was one of the biggest wars that had ever been fought and saw the introduction of weapons of mass destruction such as gas, as well as other new war technology. There are many reasons for the outbreak of World War I, however the trigger was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian student. Other factors included diplomatic fall-outs, irrational nationalism, and a build-up of military might.

Europe was split into two opposing camps. France, Russia and Great Britain were in the Triple Entente and Germany, Italy and Austria/Hungary were part of the Triple Alliance. On July 28, 1914 Austria/Hungary declared war on Serbia, so Russia began to get ready for war, and then Germany declared war on Russia and (later) France. However, when Germany invaded Belgium – a neutral country, Britain joined the war for fear of follow-up attacks. Later the United States joined the Allies.

After Germany moved into France, the trench warfare began. This was a new method of warfare that had never been tried before and had been a military officer’s brainchild. It meant that both sides had dug trenches underground, and the middle became known as “no-man’s land”. The conditions in the trenches were horrific, especially as they were always wet and muddy and filled with rats, lice and disease. There was shelling and firing by guns all day and night, and no protection from the heat or winter cold. Many soldiers not only died from being hit by guns and grenades, but also from the diseases that were rampant in those conditions or deadly poison gas. The War also caused much mental anguish and suffering for the soldiers.

Propaganda in WWI Why Men Enlisted to Fight – Both British & German

If we look back to the time of the break out of World War 1 – 1914 and before this, the world was a much different and slower place. Mass communication, electronic media and global travel were barely available and this may explain the success of war campaigns to lure young men, some still in school, to sign up and fight for their country.

The values of the time were that:

  • It was an honour to fight for one’s country in a war
  • Those who did not fight were cowards and should be punished
  • People who went to war were heroes
  • There was much glory and pride in being a soldier

At the time, there were people who were ‘conscientious objectors’, who did not believe in war, but standing out for this cause was seen as a betrayal. Thus, we see that in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, all of Paul’s class signed up to fight in the war, even though they were so young. The older men in the community were at first seen as too old to fight, so the first soldiers chosen were teenagers and those in their early twenties. The love of country and patriotism was valued highly, even though no one really knew about the horrors of war, back at home. Whilst there were official war photographers, artists, and reporters, most of what they were allowed to report back and produce would have been censored by their governments. All countries used propaganda to create fear amidst their citizens about the enemies, and to reinforce the need for men to sign up as soldiers.

The Truth about the Horrors of War

The truth about the horrors of World War I began to unfold as the soldiers realized they were just fodder for a huge killing machine that was war. Trench warfare was a new ‘idea’ that was being tested, and it allowed for massive amounts of death and disease. Paul and his friends realise when it is too late that there is no glory in this killing machine; they are just here to die. The fact that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is written by a German soldier reflects the universality of the horrors of war.

Poetry about War – Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

The same sentiments and experiences are also found in Allied writing, art-works and poetry written by those who were there – for example poems by Wilfred Owen such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ about the horrors and pity of war. Owen’s poetry presents the utter brutality of trench warfare truthfully. The experience for the soldiers was a shocking one especially as many of the soldiers were just young teenagers who had been fed propaganda about how noble it would be to fight for one’s country in the War. In fact, the common saying was “How sweet and noble it is to die for one’s country”, but the soldiers quickly realised they had just been sent to killing fields.

Plot Summary of the Novel

Paul Baumer, 19 joins the German Army to fight in World War 1. Several of his friends from his class were inspired to join the War by their patriotic school master, Kantorek. They feel they have been tricked after a few weeks at war, as the soldiers are subject to cruelty, brutality, and suffering, often leading to death. In fact, after just two weeks, Paul’s company of soldiers’ experiences losses of over 50% of the men. One of Paul’s friends Kemmerich, also a classmate is in hospital with gangrene and dying. Another friend Muller becomes pragmatic and hopes for Kemmerich’s boots when he dies.

Life is made very unbearable by the cruel and sadistic Corporal Himmelstross. Life in the trenches is disgusting and many men are struck down by disease or death. Soon there are only 32 of Paul’s company remaining alive. Not only is war hell but Paul realises that when he has leave, he feels nothing and is just numb. When he has time to go home on leave for a few weeks, Paul finds he cannot relate to others. However, he goes to visit Kemmerich’s mother and tells her that her son’s death was painless. This lie makes her happy.

Back at war, Paul is forced to stab a French soldier to death and he is filled with remorse and guilt. He realises that the enemy is just another victim of war like all soldiers. Looking through his identification, he learns the man’s name was Gerard and he has a wife and two children, which upsets him even more. By 1918 just before the War ends, Paul is the only original member of his company left. Paul is killed in October 1918. The novel ends with a statement from the Army report for this day as ‘All quiet on the Western Front’.

The Narrator of the Novel

Who is telling this story? The novel is written mostly in the First person from the perspective of Paul Baumer until the end of the book, where it changes briefly to Third person – as a report excerpt. As such the reader follows the rise and fall of Paul’s sense of life and enthusiasm. We feel his betrayal and despair, his inability to feel pain as it may overwhelm him.

Structure of the Novel

It is divided into twelve chapters, where there is some overlap, reflecting the confusion and loss of time. The reader goes on Paul’s incredible journey from innocent adolescent to jaded and despairing ‘hollow man’ who has lost everything. The last few chapters especially reflect the desperate chaos that ensued once America joined the war and Germany was clearly losing the war. Due to the lack of resources and younger men, the dying soldiers were now being replaced by older men, and the pace became even more frantic and destructive. When Paul dies, and his death is objectively reported in the third person of a military report – “All quiet on the Western Front.”

Themes of the Novel

The Horror of War – The novel presents the horror and brutality of war, which was a sharp contrast to War literature before this novel. Traditionally war books, poems, songs etc. glorified war as a patriotic honour and duty. The novel presents war from the point of view of the ordinary soldier so it cannot hide the truth and the horror of the immense suffering. World War I was a complete shock and introduced a ‘new’ method of French warfare – long, drawn out battles, new technology/weapons, which increased the death toll. The novel ends with all the major characters dead – including the protagonist and narrator, Paul.

Nationalism – The novel depicts the lies behind nationalism, exposing it as a powerful tool. Paul discovers that war has nothing to do with ideals, but rather it becomes a fight to stay alive. Moreover, there is no real sense of fighting an enemy. The enemy becomes the government and authority figures that sent them to the War.

The Effects of War on Soldiers – Clearly millions of soldiers died or were seriously injured by the War. Those that did not die and managed to return home would never be the same again. Months or years of constant exposure to physical danger constant attacks and living with fear had severe consequences on their nerves and emotional well-being. To add to this burden, the trenches were filthy, rat-infested and damp/water logged habitats. The soldiers were also dealing with lice infestations and diseased/decaying corpses all around them. Sleep was disrupted; food was lacking or of poor quality and medical care was very limited and poor. This is a toxic burden that made life for the soldiers unbearable. To survive, many of the soldiers had to disconnect from their feelings. As Paul discovers, although this leads to a general numbness that becomes all pervading, it protected the soldiers from mental anguish to some extent. The men became somewhat desensitized to the suffering and deaths all around them.

Friendship Bonds – The bonds between friends and sticking together seemed to be the only thing that kept the men alive and sane, and sometimes even this was not enough. It is especially touching to see how the more experienced soldiers looked after the new recruits who had never seen so much death and suffering. In Chapter 4, a shell-shocked young recruit seeks comfort from Paul and begins to cry as he is supported and told he will soon get used to it. Throughout the novel, Paul and Kat are very close and have a rare moment of intimacy and celebration of friendship as they eat the goose. (Chapter 5) Paul is constantly watching others die, but at this moment with Kat he acknowledges the humanizing power of friendship and relationships.

Betrayal and the Loss of Innocence – These two themes belong together because when the young men, filled with life and hopes for the future entered the war, they had been encouraged to do so by the very people who had guided them their whole lives – parents, teachers, and other authority figures. As soon as they arrived at the war, they were shocked into the reality of what the war was and the first thing they lost was their innocence, and it would have been impossible to feel betrayed by those they had trusted. In fact, Paul and the others see right through the lies and become quickly aware of the reality, and that they are just part of a giant killing machine, and need to be sacrificed to make the governments ‘plans’ a reality. The horror of war is never-ending and the recruits just keep on coming and being sacrificed for some lofty ideals.

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