A Part I-Behind the Lines
All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a young German foot soldier, Paul Baumer, during the waning days of the First World War. Since Paul narrates his story-which consists of a series of short episodes-in the first person and in present tense, the novel has the feel of a diary, with entries on everyday life interspersed with horrifying battle episodes.
We find that Paul joined the army with his classmates Muller, Kropp, and Leer at the urging of their schoolmaster. In the first section, Paul also introduces his friends Tjaden, Westhus, and Katczinski, called Kat. At forty, Kat is the oldest of the soldiers and is skilled in the practicalities of life. As the book opens, the solders concern themselves with food, cigarettes, and thoughts of home.
While resting, Baumer and his friends decide to visit Kemmerich, a wounded comrade, at the field hospital. They discover that he has had his leg amputated and that he is dying. Although they are concerned with Kemmerich’s pain, they are more concerned with what will become of his boots. Muller, in particular, covets the soft leather. Paul explains to the reader that Muller would go to any lengths to save a comrade’s life, but it is clear that Kemmerich will die and “good boots are scarce.”
Frequently during the rest period, Paul’s thoughts turn back to his days at school and to the lofty, philosophical ideals he and his classmates learned. However, nothing that he learned in school or in basic training has prepared him for life at the front. He attributes his survival not to his education, but to pure animal instinct. Paul contrasts his former life to the harsh, emotion-numbing conditions he now endures.
When the soldiers’ rest comes to an end, they are sent to the front on wiring detail. Their job is to string barbed wire along the German lines. Paul and Kat are caught in a large battle. In graphic detail, Paul describes the trenches, the shelling, the screams of wounded horses and men, the poison gas attack, and the rain that drenches everything.
After a brief respite behind the lines, during which the soldiers eat roast goose, smoke cigars, and talk of what they will do after the war, the men return to the front. This time they are sent up two days earlier than usual due to the rumor of a large offensive. In the trenches, morale is low and becomes lower as German shells fall on their own lines. Paul describes the tension and the horror of a major battle, with the confusion, the noise, and death turning the soldiers into numbed, unthinking machines.
B Part II-On Leave
After the battle, Paul receives leave to visit home. His friends Kropp and Kat see him off, and Paul starts his journey. As he travels by train, he looks at the landscape, at once so normal and, at the same time, so changed.
At home, he finds his sister cooking and his mother ill with cancer. For the first time, Paul dissolves into tears as his emotions overwhelm him. Even when he recovers and is able to speak, he finds that he is unable to answer his family’s questions about his experiences at the front.
Throughout his leave, Paul finds himself unable to get along with his family and friends. His father takes him to a pub and urges Paul to share detailed descriptions of the fighting with the older men there. Paul cannot do this. In addition, the noises of everyday life startle and frighten him. When he visits his old room at home, he feels a gulf open between himself and the person he was before the leave.
In the final scene of his leave, Paul bids farewell to his mother. Both know they will never see each other again. Later the same night, as Paul lies in his bed, he knows he should never have come home. “Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless,” he thinks, knowing he will never be so again. “I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is comfortless and without an end.”
C Part III-The Return to the Front
After Paul’s return to the front, he feels himself more strongly attached to his friends than ever. They alone can understand what he has endured. Consequently, he volunteers to go on a patrol with them. Separated from the others in the dark, Paul finds himself suddenly paralyzed with fear as another battle begins. He throws himself into a shell crater for protection. Almost immediately, a French soldier jumps in on top of him. Paul stabs the Frenchman and then spends the rest of the night and the whole next day watching him die slowly and in great pain. It is the first time Paul has killed with his hands, and the man’s dying is excruciating for Paul to witness. He tries to help his victim, but to no avail. Remorse fills Paul and he thinks of the man’s wife and life at home. Eventually, Kropp and Kat find Paul and rescue him.
The men are next assigned to guard a deserted town where they loot houses and have a grand feast. However, as they leave the village, both Kropp and Paul are wounded.
In the subsequent weeks in the hospital, Kropp’s leg is amputated and Paul’s wounds heal. Eventually, Kropp is sent home, and Paul returns to the front. It is now 1918, and the days blend together in bombardment, death, and defeat. The German troops, tired and hungry, lose ground daily to the fresh American troops. Paul and Kat are the last two alive of the original group; and then the day comes when Kat is wounded. As Paul carries Kat to look for medical help, a shell fragment hits the older man in the skull, instantly killing him. Paul is alone.
D Part IV-Conclusion
It is now the autumn of 1918. The war is winding down and Paul, recovering from a gas attack, knows that the armistice will come soon and that he will go home. He reflects on what it means to go home, not only for himself, but for all of those of his generation: Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experience we might have unleashed a storm. Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more.
And men will not understand us-for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten-and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered;-the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin….
I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear.
These are Paul’s last thoughts. The book shifts abruptly and the next page opens with a new narrator who takes over the story for the final two paragraphs. It is this voice that tells us of Paul Baumer’s death in October of 1918, on a “day that was so quiet and still on the whole front that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.”