Though he is not central to the novel’s plot, Kantorek
is an important figure as a focus of Remarque’s bitter critique
of the ideals of patriotism and nationalism that drove nations into
the catastrophe of World War I. Kantorek, the teacher who filled
his students’ heads with passionate rhetoric about duty and glory,
serves as a punching bag as Remarque argues against those ideals.
Though a modern context is essential to the indictment of Kantorek’s
patriotism and nationalism, Kantorek’s physical description groups
him with premodern evil characters. The fierce and pompous Kantorek
is a small man described as “energetic and uncompromising,” characteristics that
recall the worried Caesar’s remarks about Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius
Caesar: “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks
too much. Such men are dangerous” (I.ii.
The inclusion of a seemingly anachronistic literary type—the scheming or dangerous diminutive man—may seem out of place in a modern novel. Yet this quality of Kantorek arguably reflects the espousal of dated ideas by an older generation of leaders who betray their followers with manipulations, ignorance, and lies. “While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing,” Paul writes in Chapter One, “we already knew that death-throes are stronger.” As schoolboys, Paul and his friends believed that Kantorek was an enlightened man whose authority derived from his wisdom; as soldiers, they quickly learn to see through Kantorek’s rhetoric and grow to despise him, especially after the death of Joseph Behm. That Kantorek is eventually drafted and makes a terrible soldier reflects the uselessness of the ideals that he touts.