How does All Quiet on the Western Frontdiffer from a traditional coming-of-age novel, which charts the protagonist’s growth as an individual?
The opening pages of
In order to survive the horrors of war, Paul must perform a type of human sacrifice, eradicating his feelings and sensibilities so that all that remains is, as he puts it, a “human animal.” In Chapter Seven, Paul describes how he must distance himself from his emotions and rely solely on automatic, animal instincts. In war, that which makes a person human can cost a soldier his sanity, if not his life. As Paul puts it, emotions—the qualities that make up individual human experience—are “ornamental enough during peacetime.” A soldier must not only discard his immediate emotional reactions to survive, but he must also sever his ties to the past and plans for the future. The war becomes the focal point of his universe, and his identity before or after becomes an irrelevant distraction. The only things that matter on the battlefield are the immediate physical stimuli: blood, hunger, bullets, and pain.
The soldiers are not only animal-like in the way that they reject human emotions and live completely in the present: The violent ways they struggle for power through the exercise of brute force also make them beastly. In explaining how a seemingly subservient postman like Himmelstoss could turn into such a bully as a drill-sergeant, Paul’s friend and fellow soldier, Kat, points out that the army’s power structure brings out the animals hidden within human beings. Human civilization is just a veneer, Kat argues, and humans have more in common with the animal kingdom than they would like to admit. When he participates in viciously swarming the unsuspecting Himmelstoss, Paul himself illustrates Kat’s point by engaging in behavior more appropriate to a savage herd animal than to a rational human individual.
If, as Kat argues, it is the structure of the army that is responsible for bringing out the soldiers’ collective-minded, animal side, then perhaps armistice will enable these men to recapture their individual humanities. Yet for Paul, the prospect of armistice does not seem to promise a return to the human community. Paul imagines that any return to civilized society will be a profoundly alienating experience, one in which “men will not understand” him and in which veterans of his generation will become “superfluous.” His war experience has excluded Paul from the general civilian community, and now the only form of community he can rely on is the animalism of his fellow soldiers. As Paul voices his fear that his generation will fail to “adapt” to the civilized world, his use of Darwinian language draws a final link between the human and animal kingdoms, suggesting that war not only turns the soldier from a human individual into an animal, but that by doing so it ineradicably alters the individual’s ability to relate to other humans.