All Quiet on the Western Front

by: Erich Maria Remarque

Chapter Eight

In advancing this argument, this chapter again looks at the role of political power in initiating military conflict and concludes that the powerful people who decide to wage war are the common soldier’s real enemies. Paul reflects that he and the Russian prisoners are supposed to be enemies simply because other people more powerful than he and the prisoners decreed it so, not because of anything intrinsic to Paul, the Russians, or their relationship. Someone else decided that they had to shoot, kill, and torture one another, denying one another’s humanity and finally destroying their own.

Before he takes this thought too far, Paul quickly flees it, driven again by the necessity of keeping himself detached from the full force of his feelings. He knows that if he thinks too deeply about the causes of participation in the war, his thoughts will only make the senselessness of everything that he has experienced all too apparent. The idea of acknowledging that the war is meaningless threatens Paul’s last reserve of hope. He decides to save his thoughts for a later time because he cannot afford the psychological damage that they would cause him now.

Paul’s interaction with his father and sister in this chapter further illustrates that his experience in the war has alienated him from his past. Paul remains unable to resume his previous relationship with his family because the war has damaged his innocence and given him a new mindset that his family cannot possibly understand. In these scenes, Remarque essentially retreads the thematic material that he covers during Paul’s visit home earlier in the novel. But he also demonstrates that the trauma Paul has suffered during the war has made it impossible for him to confront his feelings of loss, fear, and grief about his mother’s illness; his worry for his mother is counterbalanced by the necessity of keeping his feelings at bay. At the same time, Remarque continues to emphasize Paul’s essential goodness, showing his feelings of compassion in his decision to give the potato cakes to the prisoners and in his realization that the cakes should mean something to him since the effort that his ailing mother put into making them constituted a sacrifice.