All Quiet on the Western Front
A group of new recruits arrives to reinforce the decimated company, making Paul and his friends feel like grizzled veterans. More than twenty of the reinforcements for the Second Company are only about seventeen years old. Kat gives one of the new recruits some beans that he acquired by bribing the company’s cook. He warns the boy to bring tobacco next time as payment for the food. Kat’s ability to scrounge extra food and provisions amazes Paul. Kat is a cobbler by trade, but he has an uncanny knack for making the most of life on the front.
Kat believes that if every soldier got the same food and the same pay, the war would end quickly. Kropp proposes that the declaration of wars should be conducted like a festival. He thinks that the generals and national leaders should battle one another with clubs in an open arena—the country with the last survivor wins the war.
Paul and his friends remember the recruits’ barracks with longing now. Even Himmelstoss’s petty humiliations seem idyllic in comparison to the actual war. They muse that Himmelstoss must have been different as a postman and wonder why he is such a bully as a drill sergeant. Kropp mimics Himmelstoss and shouts, “Change at Löhne,” recalling a drill in which Himmelstoss forced them to practice changing trains at a railway station. Kat suggests that Himmelstoss is like a lot of other men. He remarks that even a dog trained to eat potatoes will snap at meat given the opportunity. Men behave the same way when given the opportunity to have a little authority. Every man is a beast underneath all his manners and customs. The army is based on one man having more power over another man. Kat believes the problem is that they have too much power. Civilians are not permitted to torment others the way men in the army torment one another. Tjaden arrives and excitedly reports that Himmelstoss is coming to the front. Paul explains that Tjaden holds a grudge against Himmelstoss. Tjaden is a bed wetter, and during training, Himmelstoss set out to break him of this habit, which he attributed to laziness. He found another bed wetter, Kindervater, and forced them to sleep in the same set of bunk beds. Every night, they traded places. The one on the bottom was drenched by the other’s urine during the night. The problem was not laziness but bad health, rendering Himmelstoss’s ploy ineffective. The man assigned to the bottom often slept on the floor and thus caught a cold.
Haie, Paul, Kropp, and Tjaden plotted their revenge upon Himmelstoss. They lay in wait for him one night on a dark road as he returned from his favorite pub. When he approached, they threw a bed cover over his head, and Haie punched him senseless. They stripped him of his pants and took turns lashing him with a whip, muffling his shouts with a pillow. They slipped away, and Himmelstoss never discovered who gave him the beating.
After sketching the common soldier’s experience in Chapters One and Two, Remarque offers more detailed character portraits in Chapter Three. This imbuing of characters with individual personalities is essential to the thematic concerns of the novel. All Quiet on the Western Front indicts not only the horrors of combat but also the dehumanizing impersonality that attends the entire machinery of war; for this indictment to be successful, the text must show how distinct, human personas are chewed up by a machine that treats them only as able bodies. Although Kemmerich’s death in Chapter One is sad, the reader never really meets Kemmerich; the scene reveals more about his friends than it does about him. The introduction of more fully drawn characters such as Kat, in Chapter Three, enables Remarque to render their eventual pointless dehumanization and death as truly tragic. Of course, the presence of individualized characters hardly makes this text unique, but one should bear in mind that these characters constantly confront a system that denies them any individuality and that this tension animates much of the novel. The mindless drilling, such as the “Change at Löhne” exercise and Himmelstoss’s stupid and cruel solution to Tjaden’s bed-wetting, expose an impersonal, highly rationalized military that does not serve even its own interests: the “Change at Löhne” drill is a waste of time, and Himmelstoss’s solution only makes matters worse.
Paul’s description of Kat introduces a response to dehumanized conditions and, with it, a transfigured concept of the hero. Kat, like traditional heroes, is a natural leader and adept at many trades. His interest, though, is in lessening his own suffering and that of his friends, not in self-sacrifice or bravery. His enemy is modern warfare, not the English or the French. Moreover, his struggle against modern warfare has a historical dimension: Remarque associates Kat with the artifacts and behavior of premodern society. He is a cobbler by trade, an old-fashioned, preindustrial livelihood. When Kat and his friends have to sleep on uncomfortable metal wire inside a factory, a markedly modern scenario, Kat finds a horse-box with straw, which they use to pad their beds. But what truly distinguishes Kat as a walking anachronism is the freedom and self-reliance with which he moves through army life. The ingenuity and confidence that allow him to find boxes of lobsters are what marked, in epic war stories, the hero on the battlefield. For Remarque, this type of hero no longer exists, but Kat’s ability to think and act for himself survives in his resistance to dehumanized conditions.
Kat’s rant about the brutal hierarchies of the military blames the suffering that soldiers endure on a fundamental human sadism. Though Paul and Kropp volunteer theories about why officers are needlessly cruel, the text privileges Kat’s opinions by letting Kat air them to a greater extent than others are allowed to air their opinions, and by having the others defer to him in the end. Kat argues that officers are cruel to those ranked below them because they enjoy exercising power that they do not have in civilian life; a certain company commander’s “head has been turned by having so much power.” This sadism is a kind of class warfare. Kat maintains that the lower one’s station in civil society, the more power corrupts one in the army.
Remarque complicates Kat’s complaints, however, with the account of the beating of Himmelstoss, which went beyond a mere prank; it was brutal, as Himmelstoss was whipped and partially suffocated. Haie, whose name means “sharks” in German, bent over Himmelstoss “with a fiendish grin and his mouth open with bloodlust.” Paul describes him winding up “as if he were going to reach down a star,” an ironic play on Himmelstoss’s name, which consists of the German words meaning “heaven” and “strike” or “hit.” This account illustrates that Paul and his friends are not above the same cruelty that they fault in their officers. Sadism is not simply a function of rank in the military; Remarque suggests that, in wartime, it pervades everyone’s mindset.
by OverlyDramatic, August 14, 2012
Early in the book, before Kemmerich's death, Paul pictures the man's nails and growing after his death, into long spirals and corkscrews. While this is a powerful visual, it is not true. A corpse's skin shrinks away from its nails and hair after death, giving the appearance of increased length. Sorry if I grossed you out, but that was on my test and I thought you should know just in case.
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by UltimateJBFan98, March 31, 2013
Okay. Here is my advice to you. Read all through SparkNotes as you read through the book. I was soo confused til I looked on SparkNotes. But of course I looked over Spring Break right before the final test! It is a good book when you understand it TRUST ME! Yah -Sydney
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