Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Kemmerich’s Boots

Kemmerich’s high, supple boots are passed from soldier to soldier as each owner dies in sequence. Kemmerich himself took them from the corpse of a dead airman, and as Kemmerich lies on his own deathbed, Müller immediately begins maneuvering to receive the boots. Paul brings them to Müller after Kemmerich dies and inherits them himself when Müller is shot to death later in the novel. In this way, the boots represent the cheapness of human life in the war. A good pair of boots is more valuable—and more durable—than a human life. The question of who will inherit them continually overshadows their owners’ deaths. The boots also symbolize the necessary pragmatism that a soldier must have. One cannot yield to one’s emotions amid the devastation of the war; rather, one must block out grief and despair like a machine.


Nature represents refuge. When they are away from the front, the men swim and clean themselves in the river, ridding themselves of reminders of war; in Chapter Eleven, Detering sees a cherry tree in bloom that reminds him of home; when Paul sees butterflies near the trench, he wonders what they could possibly be doing here, as the trench has no flowers or plants. But even at the front, nature offers a form of protection. Paul covers his wounds with dirt to hide the blood, and he buries himself in the earth, shielding himself from shellfire. “To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier,” he says, though here nature has been twisted, perverted, corroded to accommodate the horrors of war.

No Man's Land

When Paul enters No Man’s Land, the space between the trenches that neither army controls, he is subject to fire from friends and foes alike. This symbolizes his rejection of nationalism. For Paul, the war has become less about winning against France, England, and Russia than survival, and the enemy is war itself. The fact that he feels pity for the Russian prisoners, or that he sleeps with a French girl despite being at war with the French, suggests battle lines are essentially arbitrary, and his experience with the French soldier reinforces this. For the first time he kills a man in hand-to-hand combat rather than at a distance that enables him to compartmentalize the horror of killing, and he bandages the soldier’s wounds and gives him water because, at his core, Paul does not hate the man. They are fighting on opposite sides, but in this moment they belong to no country; they are both pawns, fighting and dying in a futile war.