A Individual vs. Machine
The patriotism of war is a thing of the past, Remarque suggests, as the young recruits quickly learn about the reality of trench warfare. Paul Baumer, fresh from school at the beginning of the novel, is sent after skimpy but brutal basic training to the trenches in France. He quickly learns that living or dying has little to do with one’s prowess as a soldier but more as a conditioned reflex. Since the Allies outgunned the Axis in artillery and machinery, the German youth took refuge in trenches that were no match for the kind of warfare waged. As more and more of his comrades are killed, Baumer sees that death comes from afar in the artillery shells and the bombs, and as the trenches offer less and less refuge from the other side’s new tanks and airplanes and its better guns, survival becomes little more than a chance.
Thus, the theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the individual’s struggle against forces beyond his control: technology, institutions, politics, social conventions, disease, and death. The soldiers become automata, trying to avoid death more than actually fighting. Rapid changes of scene take the reader to the front-sheltering from shell-fire in a cemetery, under gas attack, behind the lines-on leave to a Germany that cannot conceive of life at the front, into contact with Russian POWs, and to the hospital, where the consequences of war are among the severest and clearest. The increasingly condensed final chapters show the young German troops defeated in the field, clearly unable to win in the face of livelier and better fed Allied troops, and Baumer dies before the actual armistice. His death in the end, the author seems to say, is not even worth reporting.
The atmosphere of death, the callousness of Muller’s request for Kemmerich’s boots, the theft of his watch, and the eagerness of a soldier to exchange cigarettes for morphine to aid a dying soldier add to the theme of the absurdity of modern existence, where man is forced to combat impersonal mechanistic forces.
The one element that retains its positive value in the novel is friendship between the comrades. A difference in generation developed, and ties between the young soldiers solidified. Carl Zuckmayer, a playwright and friend of Remarque, writes in A Part of Myself, The heroic gestures of the volunteers was barred to Erich Maria Remarque and his age group; they had to sweat out their normal time in school and then be unwillingly drafted, drilled, and harassed, and they went into the field without illusions, for they had some inkling of the horrors that awaited them there. For us the brief training period was a strenuous but also an amusing transition, a great joke, much as if we were playing parts in a highly realistic military comedy.
C Alienation and Loneliness
Paul retreats from civilian life into the isolated world of the soldier. Following his leave, he grieves over his second departure to the front, which separates him from his mother. He is sad to lose his friends. In the same vein, the wistful, elegiac mood persists in the novel in the allusions to the lost generation. Paul accepts the fact that his generation is burned out and emotionally stifled. During his guard duty, he sees men scurry in terror in a rat-infested trench as they hide next to cadavers of their comrades. Chapter 12, the last, is a compelling existential cry of abandonment. Paul perceives his generation as “weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.” Against a red rowan tree, he sees nature through new, objective eyes. “I am so alone,” he concludes, lacking a will to live.
When Baumer returns home on leave, he is unable to identify with memories of his youth nor understand the patriotic enthusiasm of the older generation. The lost generation essentially includes the students whose youth is cut short and ruined by war.