All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is an anti-war novel that relies on vivid, disturbing imagery and realistic dialogue to detail the devastating impacts of war on its participants. The novel serves as a timeless reminder of the human costs of armed conflict and the need to strive for peace. Told from the first-person perspective of its protagonist, Paul Bäumer, the novel not only hints at the futility of warfare, but also suggests that combatants, although they might survive, are forever changed and scarred.
In the work’s inciting incident, Paul and his friends are led to believe in the heroic glory associated with war. Their teacher, Kantorek, delivers a patriotic speech that inspires them to join the army. However, as the novel’s central conflict develops, they quickly realize that the reality of war differs from what they were led to believe. Training is brutal. Eighty of 150 men die within a few weeks. A cook, obsessed with military regulations, argues that he should throw out most of the food he has prepared because those men have died. Furthermore, Kemmerich’s death, the result of a small and simple wound, is anything but glorious.
As the plot’s rising action develops, Paul gains an awareness that contradicts the nationalist rhetoric that has motivated him. His experiences lead him to understand that his purpose is not a matter of glory, honor, or compassion, but is instead primarily a matter of survival. Following a particularly bloody and horrific battle, he recognizes that instinct may be more important to survival than reason. By the time that Müller takes Kemmerich’s boots, Paul, unlike his friends, has determined that sentimentality, when balanced against the need to survive, has little weight. Eventually, he cannot imagine a life after the war ends: he began his young adulthood as a soldier at war and has had no experience with any other life. The war has had dehumanizing effects, and its reality differs greatly from the propaganda Paul and his friends have been fed.
As the work approaches its climax, Paul experiences a moment of genuine sympathy, if not empathy, for enemy troops. He recognizes that the suffering, hunger, and disease of the Russian prisoners reflects a universally human fragility. He also realizes that their participation in and experience of the war is likely identical to his own. He offers them cigarettes, a sign that he is rejecting the rhetoric behind the war and beginning to comprehend a larger truth.
Echoing those realizations about the Russians, Paul, at the novel’s climax, is led to an epiphany about his own complicity. Not only has the war impacted who he is, but it has led to behaviors that he is unable to reconcile. As the shelling begins, he leaps into a hole to hide, and a French soldier, hiding as well, leaps into the hole with him. Paul instinctively stabs him and witnesses his slow, painful death. He learns the solider’s name (Gérard Duval), his occupation (printer), and that he had a wife and child. Unlike the disassociated killing that results from the use of artillery and gas, Paul’s connection is immediate and intimate, leaving him inconsolable. For Paul, impelling rhetoric, a sense of patriotic fervor, the words of his friends, and even the instinct to survive prove inadequate justifications for what he has done. Everyone is a pawn and victim, he realizes, even those who survive.
During the novel’s falling action, events confirm what Paul has learned. He and his friends, at a relatively peaceful moment, prepare a meal, only to be shelled when the enemy sees the smoke from their fire. They save the food, understanding that any meal might be their last. Paul suggests later, when he is in the hospital, that hospital conditions might serve as a metaphor for war itself; there is an odd mix of overwhelming death with a perpetual struggle to create a sense of normalcy, intimacy, and familiarity. By the end of Paul’s narrative of events in 1918, he is the only one of his friends left alive. He has been wounded in a gas attack, yet he is terrified at the thought of returning home because he would have no idea what to do or how to live there.
The resolution of the novel is bleak and filled with multiple ironies, reinforcing Remarque’s assertion about the futility of warfare. Paul dies on a relatively peaceful day with little fighting, a day for which the official report is that everything is “quiet on the Western Front.” He has survived three years of trench warfare and brutality, dying on an unremarkable day, only a few months from what will be the end of the war. An entire generation of young men, as was the case with Paul, has been essentially eradicated, and their deaths had little meaning.