What are the main themes of
Remarque’s novel is a profound statement against war, focusing especially on the ravaging effects of war on the humanity of soldiers. Throughout Paul’s narrative there are attacks on the romantic ideals of warfare. The novel dramatizes the disjunction between high-minded rhetoric about patriotism and honor and the actual horror of trench warfare. Remarque continually stresses that the soldiers are not fighting with the abstract ideals of patriotic spirit in mind; they are fighting for their survival. The matters of acquiring food, shelter, and clothing, in addition to avoiding gunfire and bombs, constitute their foremost concerns. Nothing in this novel makes the actual experience of war look attractive. Even the intense friendships between Paul and his fellow soldiers are tempered with the sobering reality that their bonds come at the high price of relentless suffering and terror.
Remarque also explores the gulfs in age and power that are widened by war; he portrays the war as the older generation’s profound betrayal of the younger. Men of Paul’s age entered the war under the heavy pressure of people they regarded as trusted authority figures. The very people who are supposed to guide them to their adulthood instead send them to their deaths with empty slogans of patriotic duty.
How does Remarque portray the technological and military innovations of the war? How do those innovations affect the lives of the soldiers?
Technological and military innovations such as poison gas, the machine gun, and trench warfare revolutionized combat during World War I, and Remarque effectively dramatizes how these innovations made the war bloodier, longer, and more costly. In almost every case, military innovations make the soldiers’ lives more dangerous, while medical innovations lag increasingly far behind. Kemmerich, for instance, dies from complications from a relatively light wound. Glory and patriotism cease to be rational ideals in the conflict because advanced technology limits the effect that an individual soldier can have on the conflict and alienates him from the consequences of his actions. Life and death thus become meaningless. Whether or not a soldier dies in a bombardment is determined by chance or animal instinct and has nothing to do with the soldier’s attitude toward the conflict.
Think about the concept of enemies in war. Whom do Paul and his friends regard as their enemies?
When Paul and his friends talk about enemies, they do not speak of the soldiers on the other side. Instead, they concentrate their hostility on Kantorek and Himmelstoss, their superiors and fellow countrymen. Paul and his classmates view Kantorek and other formerly trusted authority figures like him as the origin of their pointless suffering. These authority figures have sent them to war with the tragically false illusion that they were embarking on an exciting journey to fight for honor and glory. They view all common soldiers who are forced to fight in the trenches, regardless of their national origin, as victims. When Paul meets the Russian prisoners, he can hardly believe that they are his enemies—it is only the word of their respective leaders that has made them enemies. Because of the conflicts between more powerful men, Paul and the Russians are forced to kill and maim one another, even though they have more in common with one another than they do with their respective leaders.
Why do Paul and men of his age group fear the end of the war as much as they fear the war itself?
When Müller persistently questions his friends about their postwar plans, the younger men can give only vague answers. Older men mention their jobs and their families; they had concrete identities and social functions before the war. Younger men like Paul and his classmates had no such concrete identities. They entered the war when they were on the threshold of their adult lives and thus gained their identities as soldiers. Paul cannot even imagine any definite postwar goals. Many young men like him cannot view the war as a temporary interruption in their lives. Their experiences of the war are so shattering that they regard the prospect of functioning in a peacetime environment with a vague anxiety. For them, peace represents the unknown; the war, on the other hand, as terrible as it is, offers them some minimal comfort by virtue of their intimate familiarity with it. Whereas they know how to function as soldiers, Paul and the other young comrades cannot imagine functioning in civilian jobs. They have no experiences as adults that do not involve a day-to-day fight for survival and sanity.