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All Quiet on the Western Front

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"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."

This opening paragraph is a simple, poetic version of the main theme behind All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The point of the story is to show that war is not romantic, glorious, or fantastic. In fact, those words could not be further from the truth. War is a disgusting competition of human instinct, fought by the wrong people. It brings out the worst in everyone; it destroys their compassion, honesty, and ideals. The beginning chapters of All Quiet on the Western Front are devoted to showing that warfare hardens soldiers against true emotions. Their main priority is survival, second is comfort, followed by gain.

In the first chapter, the narrator, Paul Baumer, and his troop have just returned from the front line after suffering heavy casualties. He is joyous because his troop, the Second Company, has been served double rations due to the losses. He and his friends laugh and eat, feeling privileged. They are not at all deterred by the fact that they were gifted this excess of food by 70 fallen comrades. When the cook hears of the losses, he is shocked, but not because of the deaths; he is astonished that he has prepared nearly double the amount of food needed. The soldiers' disconnection shows more personally when Paul and his friends, Muller and Kropp, go to visit a fellow soldier named Franz Kemmerich who is hospitalized with a leg wound. They realize that he will not leave the hospital alive, but they are not too concerned. In fact, their thoughts revolve more around Kemmerich's well-crafted boots and who will inherit them once he is passed. It isn't that they don't care for their friend; it's simply that they have learned to push away sadness and other emotions. They must focus on their own lives before mourning the loss of others.

Kropp has received a letter from his schoolmaster, Kantorek. His letter refers to Kropp, Paul, and all the other boys of their age as the "Iron Youth." They take the letter in good spirits, but they all feel deeply embittered and betrayed by Kantorek and the men of the older generation. Kantorek preached to them of patriotism and honor. He told them that in a war you fight for your country, and you should be proud of it. It did not take them long to realize that this was not true. Battle is terrifying. In a war, every soldier fights for one reason: his survival. All ideals of honor and nationalism are dropped, and the desire to remain alive consumes one's thoughts. Kantorek did not teach this to the "Iron Youth." They only began to understand this under the training of their malicious drill sergeant, Corporal Himmelstoss.

Paul, Kropp, Muller, and Kemmerich were put in No. 9 Platoon under Himmelstoss, a power hungry and sinister little man who is a postal worker in peacetime. After dealing with his torturous routines and drills for long enough, they took revenge; they obeyed his commands slowly and patronizingly, until his frustration took hold and he loosened his fist over them. Their real assault came later, however. One night, Paul, Kropp, Tjaden, and Haie Westhus wait for Himmelstoss to return from a pub he often visits. Armed with a bedcover and cushion, they beat, whip, and humiliate Himmelstoss without ever letting him realize their identities. The actions taken in this scene show a brutality and loathing that Paul and his friends don't even feel towards the people they are supposed to be killing. Himmelstoss was a known enemy; he expressed his animosity, verbally, physically, and made sure that his inferiors felt it. Paul never experiences this from the French or the English.

One of the most important themes in All Quiet on the Western Front is that the soldiers of one army are not far different from the soldiers of another. They are all simple men, forced to fight for causes they may not believe in. When Paul kills a soldier in close combat for the first time, he feels irreparable guilt for what he did. A French printer, named Duval, whom Paul did not ever know. He was a father and husband, likely a good man, who might have been fighting only because he was told it was what he had to do, same as Paul.

"The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: 'Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was the abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert.'" (223)

Throughout the novel, none of the protagonists speak ill of the French soldiers, or the English. At some points it even seems as though Paul feels a type of camaraderie towards them.



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