Müller’s persistent questioning about his friends’ postwar plans reveals why the young generation of men who enlisted right out of school was termed “the lost generation” by Gertrude Stein, an American writer who spent much of her life in Paris. Older men who had prewar jobs and families regarded the war as an interruption in their lives that eventually would end. They had concrete identities and functions within society. Younger men, such as Paul and his classmates, had no such concrete identities. They entered the war when they were on the threshold of their adult lives. None of them have definite answers to Müller’s questions: they no longer have any conception of themselves apart from the war, emphasizing the theme of the war’s ravaging effect on the humanity of soldiers.
Remarque’s soldiers, like many members of the lost generation, regard the war as something that could not possibly end because they cannot imagine anything else. They thus conceive their adult identities as inextricably linked to their lives as soldiers. Haie gives the most definite postwar plans, but even his answer involves remaining in the army—he cannot imagine himself as anything but a soldier. Paul and his younger comrades cannot imagine functioning in civilian jobs after what they have seen and done. Their only definite plan for the future is to exact revenge upon Himmelstoss. Their curt answers to Müller’s questions betray a certain anxiety about the end of the war, as if they fear the end of the war as much as they fear the war itself. Thinking and planning for the future requires concrete forms of hope, but the horror of trench warfare doesn’t allow them to have hope for anything other than survival. They have no experiences as adults that do not involve a day-to-day struggle to survive and maintain sanity.
Although he is not particularly important to the novel’s narrative, Himmelstoss, like Kantorek, is a very significant figure in All Quiet on the Western Front because of what he reveals about the mentality of war. Paul and his friends observe repeatedly that war makes small, petty men become arrogant and hungry for power. Himmelstoss is the perfect example, a former mailman who becomes a fearsome bully simply because he is given military authority. Paul continually differentiates between the ceremonial, formal aspects of the army and the hellish chaos of actual battle. He sees little relation between parade drilling and saluting, on the one hand, and the madness of combat, on the other. Until he arrives at the front, Himmelstoss represents only the useless formal rituals of the army, demanding that men salute him on sight. Paul’s friends observe that the German army is losing the war because the soldiers know how to salute too well, implying that too much attention is paid to outmoded propriety and not enough to the actual techniques of fighting in a modern war.
Paul and his friends continue to form an extremely close-knit unit in this chapter. The novel simultaneously explores the horror of war and the intensity of soldiers’ friendships. Remarque suggests that peacetime social relationships can never approach the intimacy or intensity of a soldier’s bonds with other soldiers. Paul marvels at the flood of emotion that he experiences while roasting the stolen goose with Kat. He and Kat would never have known one another in peacetime, but the war has brought their lives together in a crucible of horror. Their shared suffering makes peacetime concerns and concepts of friendship pale by comparison. In many ways, the bond forged between soldiers in trench warfare is the only romanticized element of Remarque’s spectacularly unromantic novel.