The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy.
Paul learns much in retrospect, gaining clarity through the gauntlet of war. Here he reflects that the people who shrank from war, who were branded as cowards, had the right idea. Those without lives of hardship embraced the idea of war as glory, but the people who had already known the depths to which life could sink smelled that misfortune a mile away. Paul regrets falling sway to the ignorance of privilege.
I do not reply. It is no use any more. No one can console him. I am wretched with helplessness.
Paul admits that he can’t figure out what to do for his hospitalized, dying comrade. In the midst of the war, Paul still tries to keep his humanity, and knows that he should stay by his friend’s side out of kindness. However, the war makes his kindness useless. Paul can say nothing to comfort a man who is dying miles from home and family. Paul’s fight against futility will slowly wear him down to nothing.
It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how. If it were not so, there would not be one man alive from Flanders to the Vosges. We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.
Paul reveals that he can feel himself becoming an animal. He knows this transformation is necessary to survive, but this knowledge cannot cure his horror. In the thick of battle, the men give themselves over to pure instinct, running and hiding and killing.
On the platform I look round; I know no one among all the people hurrying to and fro. A red-cross sister offers me something to drink. I turn away, she smiles at me too foolishly, so obsessed with her own importance: “Just look, I am giving a soldier coffee!”—She calls me “Comrade,” but I will have none of it.
When Paul returns home for leave, he finds himself disgusted by the way civilians view the war. No one but Paul knows the awful truth, and his knowledge has dislodged him from the society from which he came. When the red-cross sister calls him “Comrade,” Paul takes it as an affront. He will never have any comrades but those who have seen what he has seen.
Any noncommissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free. I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss.
Paul here realizes that the real enemies in war are the power structures that allow authority figures to send impressionable underlings into danger. He knows the war is a sham and he is killing fellow boys for nothing. However, Paul also knows this knowledge will do him no good. He must suppress his humanity under the weight of the only thing that matters now: the need to survive.
The eyes follow me. I am powerless to move so long as they are there. Then his hand slips slowly from his breast, only a little bit, it sinks just a few inches, but this movement breaks the power of the eyes. I bend forward, shake my head and whisper: “No, no, no,” I raise one hand, I must show him that I want to help him, I stroke his forehead.
Here, Paul describes his experience staring into the eye of the first man he kills up close. When the man jumped into Paul’s foxhole, Paul stabbed him out of sheer instinct. Forced to remain in the hole to take cover from bombs, Paul sees this dying man as he really is: a scared boy, just like him. This transition out of survival instinct reveals the brutality of war to Paul. In any other situation, he would never have harmed this man.
Do I walk? Have I feet still? I raise my eyes, I let them move round, and turn myself with them, one circle, one circle, and I stand in the midst. All is as usual. Only the Militiaman Stanislaus Katczinsky has died. Then I know nothing more.
When Paul loses his last remaining friend, he questions whether he himself is even still alive. These men were the closest friends Paul will ever have. Their experiences have forever separated them from other people, and they could never have rejoined normal life. The war has finally sanded Paul down to nothing.
But then I feel the lips of the little brunette and press myself against them, my eyes close, and I want it all to fall from me, war and terror and grossness, in order to awaken young and happy; I think of the picture of the girl on the poster and, for a moment, believe that my life depends on winning her. And if I press ever deeper into the arms that embrace me, perhaps a miracle may happen.
When the soldiers sneak away to a farmhouse to visit some local girls, Paul at first expects a night of fun, an easy release from his pent-up passions. Paul reveals that when he finally gets close to a girl, though, he realizes how much innocence he has lost. It is only when sharing an intimate moment with another human does Paul see how far he has strayed from normal humanity. Paul wishes this girl could help him find that innocence again, but deep down he knows his wish is futile.