With our young, awakened eyes we saw that the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers resolved itself here into a renunciation of personality such as one would not ask of the meanest servants.”
Paul reflects on seeing the gung-ho nationalist ideals he was taught fall away as he was further immersed in actual war. Those who pushed him to enlist claimed that going to war for your country is a glorious cause, and acted as though they respected the soldiers. However, Paul finds that the very nature of war is disrespectful to soldiers, because it requires them to debase themselves completely. He feels that he and his comrades are not gloried defenders of their birthplace, but rather slaves to the political whims of their superiors.
It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.
Paul bitterly reflects on the fact that the media back home sells a sanitized, cheery version of the war to the populace. In an effort to stoke nationalist pride and widespread confidence in the war effort, the news makes the troops seem like jolly heroes on a grand adventure, fighting in the trenches and reveling in the camps afterward. The public’s separation from the reality of the war makes this nationalist lie possible, and those in charge use that lack of information to their advantage.
A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends.
When Paul comes face-to-face with captured enemy prisoners, he fully realizes the arbitrary nature of war. These people are strangers who have done nothing to him. When no one fighting has actually been wronged, then whether someone is your enemy depends on nothing more than a technicality. This is the lie of nationalism: that two strangers killing each other over a plot of land is an expression of pride. In reality, their imminent deaths could be prevented with the shake of a hand or the stroke of a pen, making their sacrifice essentially meaningless.
A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. Or a river, or a wood, or a field of wheat.
Here, Tjaden ridicules the idea that of countries going to war with each other. When Tjaden questions how a war is started, Kropp explains that it is usually by one country offending the other. Tjaden retorts: “Then I haven’t any business here at all… I don’t feel myself offended.” The only people who have really been offended are one or two politicians. The citizens weren’t involved in the dispute. A country is not a single entity with a single mind, but rather a collection of people doing their best to coexist, a fact which blind nationalism plainly ignores.
[H]e has not had a war up till now. And every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books.
When a soldier questions why the war would be useful for the Kaiser, Kat reminds him why leaders actually want wars. For the Kaiser, who doesn’t need to fight, war is an abstract concept, a feather in his cap. He uses it to improve his standing in history, under the guise that he has brought glory to his country. The men beneath the Kaiser realize the falseness of that glory, calling him a “full-grown emperor” like they were patronizing a child. The Kaiser’s war is little more than schoolyard pettiness, an ego-driven squabble that nonetheless leads to mass death.