Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front chronicles one man, Paul Baumer whose often misapprehended decisions lead him in a fight to the death alongside a legion of boys just like himself, all of whom risk their lives for a contemptuous government that has promised them a successful and glorious future, but rewarded them only with pain, grief, and misery. Because he has been lead his entire life to believe in war not as an act of horrific sacrifice but a valiant exercise in heroism and bravery, Paul becomes disillusioned by his administration's own immoral lies, which eventually sends him into an inner and external struggle with his personal beliefs, while also forever altering his perception of life, death, and his own significance as a soldier in a lost and suffered generation of men devoid of opportunity, future, and hope.
Paul sees coherence in volunteering to fight, something he has never done, for a country whose judgment and reasoning he does not yet understand, in a place he has never before witnessed. He enlists accepting that the cause is indeed worth his effort and endeavor. Yet this situation is not as it seems, for Paul is being manipulated, and the thoughts that he accepts are not necessarily shared by his government, a force infinitely more dominant and controlling than he. The divine word of the political supervisors that run the system trickles down into every recess of Paul's homeland, to every last inhabitant of his beloved country. Kantorek, Paul's schoolteacher, for example, has a significant hold on Paul's judgment. Paul is still young, and his thoughts are easily sculpted by those whom he most respects and admires. Paul recollects how Kantorek would often give him and his acquaintances "long lectures until the whole of [his] class went, under [Kantorek's] shepherding, and volunteered" (11), giving insight into just how involved the obviously self-respecting civil schoolteacher was at enlightening his students in regards to Germany's pleas for support. But almost like a salesman, Kantorek was very careful about what he said. By broadcasting only his thoughts of victory and enthusiasm, he had successfully sold his apprentices into a fictitious realm that would only make it more difficult for the youth to recover from once they realized the disaster they were heading for. True, "It's all rot that they put in the war news" (140), but Kantorek is oblivious. He will acknowledge only what he wants to believe, and is sightless to anything else. Paul meanwhile, finds himself in a paradox between what Kantorek has informed him of, and what he is indeed encountering. In one way, his head is still "full of vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also an ideal and almost romantic nature" (21), and in another way he has learned through trial and error that "what matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill" (22). It is by these means that Paul's confusion truly begins to take shape. He has enlisted with illusions of adventure and high spirits; to fight for his beliefs, and begin an exciting journey from which he will emerge a champion and a conqueror. Kantorek's preaching has given him this fantasy. The cold, bitter reality is that his high spirits are irrelevant, because he is not feeding himself. He now serves his government, and his government hungers only for victory. It is unfortunate that Paul's country has so much control over him. In a time when so many disagreed with the idea of war, "No one could very well stand out" (11). To speak up against one's government was treason; freedom was limited, and those with political power held a death grip over those who had none. Rebellion was subdued due to the fear of dire consequences for crossing the system. This only made it easier to victimize the young and na´ve into fighting for the cause, as "even one's parents were ready with the word 'coward'" (11). Without a second opinion, Paul never had to think twice. In the beginning, following his attachment into the world of the German elite, Paul was confused, and shattered. But this was not the confusion and disappointment that he would encounter later into the war. In truth, as he was transitioning from the reality in which he had resided for so long into the certainty of war, Paul was suddenly enabled to think on more unreserved terms--free of the confines of a socially acceptable lifestyle. War became the only truth, the only authenticity, and Paul was living out his existence in the middle of it. But he was changing, becoming something that he could not yet accept or understand. Paul's country requires the help of him and his generation to bravely and ceaselessly fight for its cause. But the system is a downward spiral of crushed hopes and lost dreams, and once it has grasped a life, it becomes ignorant, leaving that life to helplessly thrash while it sucks in more victims to aid the cause. Paul is not his country's "iron youth" (18), he is only one more mouth to feed, only one more string to pull. Paul has become a slave, and he is helpless to oppose.
Even though he is constantly fighting for his survival, Paul struggles not only to stay alive, but also to retain his sanity. Paul is, in fact, also at war with his clashing inner beliefs. In this way, he must make decisions that will impact his dignity, principles, and livelihood. Not only must Paul face up to the inexhaustible madness surrounding him, but also to a growing internal conflict as well. Paul is not the strongest of his generation; he is not uncompromising. He is only human. Apparently young and perplexed by his existence, Paul is helpless to offset issues concerning the war and himself. He cannot counteract aspects of his personality that perhaps even he does not yet understand. Paul judges The Front, for instance, as a kind of vortex or black hole. "Though I am still far away from its center, I feel the whirl of [The Front] sucking me slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself" (55), detailing just how powerful the physical aspect of the war zone is to Paul's emotions, and how genuinely terrified he is of it. It exists in another plain of existence entirely, in a realm of pure chaos, which Paul must overcome and conquer. But perhaps he is not yet strong enough; for it is on The Front that Paul begins to change. It is there that he loses his youth, he suffers, he kills, and he is killed. And yet it is The Front that keeps him moving, that gives him the strength to get up and fight, and never stop until the fighting has stopped. It is because of The Front that Paul maintains sanity, and it is because of The Front that Paul begins to lose control of his emotions. But it is also there that Paul is given the chance to reflect on who he once was and who he eventually becomes. For all that he has done, Paul is still, in many ways, the civilized, cultured individual that personified him before the war. Even towards the end of his days, Paul could still admit to himself, "The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes" (295). Paul never forgets his past, even if the war has given him an entirely new perspective of life. Paul never thinks of himself as a hero, because, to him, there is no glory in what he has done. Others would accept him as such, for it is accepted that to kill in battle is to be heroic, but were Paul to take a life without the war to shield him from his sin, he would be labeled a murderer. Paul cannot understand why it is justified one way, and scorned another, but how can he, for there is no correct way to answer to such a dilemma. Sadly, the irrationality of war only leads Paul to more frusteration. After all, what is he without conflict? Kropp, one of Paul's acquaintances, acknowledges, "The war has ruined us for everything" (87), and Paul can only agree, as he cannot possibly expect to walk away from the war without the images of his experiences forever burned into his mind. He cannot leave the emotions he felt when he realized, possibly for the first time in his life that he had reached a place where he was no longer safe from the adversity of the world, a place where he was habitually in solitude. Were the war to abruptly end, Paul would continue with his life, but he would not be the same person he once was. The war has penetrated deep into his mind, and left a wound inside him that would heal in time, but always remain a scar, there to remind him of who he once was, and what he had once become. For all that Paul has changed, however, inside he is still passive, and his sympathy for his enemy, though a blatant weakness, becomes his acceptance. While speaking of Gerard Duval, the Frenchman that Paul stabs in defense of his life, Paul claims, "This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me" (221). Paul also tries to help Gerard recover, and assists his wounds. His situation has given him too much time to reflect on his inner feelings, and this has led to the awakening of a weakness that, during a time of warfare, could lead to the end of any man: Compassion. When there is only detestation between opposing sides, Paul's display of humanity, though reinstating hope in his livelihood, only makes him a weakness to himself. But soon Paul becomes aware that though he impulsively feels remorse and guilt, were he to allow these feelings to overwhelm him he would not be able to fulfill his purpose in the war. He must destroy life or have his life destroyed, and although he is perhaps too pacifistic to fully agree with this idea, he must still face the ever-present reality: That in a time of war, to show compassion is to exhibit benevolence when surrounded only by hatred.
How Paul feels about his actions on the inside are often somewhat contradictive to his outer, more physical reactions. Eventually, his inner moral outlook becomes outweighed to him when balanced against his instinctive need for survival and endurance. Directly concerning the war, Paul affirms, "We have lost all feeling for one another, we can hardly control ourselves...we are insensible, dead men" (116). Paul's insanity and confusion is changing his thoughts, for during the time of warfare, he no longer looks at himself or his comrades as civilized men. To do this would mean Paul is obligated to think in rational terms regarding his own tolerance of human suffrage in the war, and war is quite illogical, much like those who choose to endure it. Paul also no longer feels quite alive, and this is a valid notion, as in a moment he may be dead--it would take so little to end his trivial existence. As his concealed and more external actions diverge farther apart, Paul also begins to split into two different aspects of himself. Whereas Paul would march to The Front a "moody or good tempered soldier" (56), as soon as he crossed onto the battlefield, surrounded by explosions and gunfire and chaos, he and his companions would transform into "instant human animals" (56), indicative of just how strongly Paul's uneasy tension is channeled into hostility and aggression. When Paul is trapped inside his shelter for days on end without enough food, sleep, or space, the isolation and rodent infestation begin to drive him and the others in the room mad. As soon as the attack begins and the enemy advances, however, all these thoughts of distress and anxiety are discarded, and Paul's built up anger is released onto the war at hand. He is no longer Dr. Jekyll; Paul has become Mr. Hyde. His deprivation is removed, and replaced by a renewed will to fight not for his country, but for himself. Eventually, Paul is so consumed by his animal side that when it comes time to engage in hand-to-hand combat, Paul attacks and kills, claiming to his astonishment, "I do not think at all, I make no decision" (216). In a way, to kill so indistinctly is passable, for Paul has no options. But he was not educated on how to quickly and efficiently take a human life. Even in training, Paul is taught insignificant things, without regard to how he should and will react after stabbing a man to death with a dagger blade. Paul has not been guided through any of his decisions. He is writing the script to his own life. But at the same time, Paul is powerless to oppose what he cannot avoid. He claims, "We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation" (113), describing how although Paul has objections to the war, he would still rather kill as a warrior in defense of his life, than fall as a peacekeeper in defense of his beliefs. Apparently, although his opinion towards the relevance of the war is changing, Paul's grip on self-preservation remains strong. But deserted in a pit with the deceased Gerard Duval, Paul begins to fall into the control of the dead man. He cries, "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?" (223). Cut off from his friends, protected only by the earth that has suffocated in the blood of so many men before him, Paul loses his sense of judgment, almost as if he has caught a disease. And in a way he has: Isolation. When Gerard dies, Paul's only company is the sound of more dying above him. His seclusion might have destroyed him, had it not been for the cries to suddenly silence, affording him the opportunity to once again rejoin his people. But while he is trapped, he forgets everything he has been trained to accept, and becomes human again, returning, if only for a brief time, to a world of reason. Paul must live with his sympathy, for it is the price he pays for being civilized. Gerard is dead, and Paul's regret for taking the soldier's life only adds to his confusion now that he is confronted with a situation that yields no correct answer.
Since Paul's perspectives of war and his country were originally a misinterpretation, his firsthand feelings and observations increasingly begin to shape who he is, as he becomes older and more familiar with his own purpose. Paul's changing opinions can be accredited to many factors. Perhaps the strongest impact on Paul's increasingly pessimistic viewpoint came in the realization that the very country he was once so eager to protect had become apathetic and ignorant to his well-being. The German government was, after all, attempting to "sell" its soldiers on half-truths and hopeful but invariably false distinctions of a comfortably secure future. Of course, even if Paul had been aware of the horrors that awaited him in the rising conflict, his enlistment might have occurred regardless. Paul could, after all, confess that at one time, he and his generation "Loved our country as much as [our elders]; we went courageously into every action" (13), giving insight into how no one, Paul included, could possibly desert their country and beliefs, because their civil pride was simply too strong to be overcome by their decision to enlist and eventually suffer in their own futile waste of life. Yet even with these firmly rooted values in place, Paul admits, "We distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see" (13). Once Paul stepped foot onto the scorched wasteland of The Front, and saw the apocalyptic future that awaited him with his own eyes, the blindfold his government had wrapped around his head was removed. But Paul was nineteen--he was invincible. Before the war started, Paul's thoughts were of a vengeful glory. He would fight because his country asked him to. But how easy it is for the adolescent mind to pertain to thoughts of immortality. Once his war began, these feelings would drastically change. His first realization was that he was indeed especially vulnerable to every occurrence in the war, and his second observation was that he had fooled himself into believing that he was not. He states, "The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces" (12). Upon beginning his quest for meaning, Paul would come to realize that everything he had learned up until his first offensive was not nearly as important as one single element--his own survival. Life takes on a whole new meaning to Paul when he accepts that it would take so little to end his own petty existence. One direct hit, and his life could be destroyed, all of his thoughts of a future worth living would fade away and be lost forever. After his first encounter, Paul's feelings are of rejection, confusion, and above everything else, alienation. Eventually, Paul loses all compassion toward his domineering government, and he has every right to believe the way he does. As a human forced to survive inhumane conditions, how can Paul still have faith in his country, or believe in his undefined cause? While on leave, Paul is approached by a German head master with the question "what's the spirit like out there?" Paul replies truthfully with "no one would be sorry to be back home" (166), to which the head master responds by way of uproarious laughter, as if all of Paul's problems are so easily dismissed. The head master will not acknowledge Paul's sincerity, and that only fuels his anger toward his once respected elders. There was a time when Paul loved his country; when he was willing to fight for his homeland's well being. But, along with all of the lies Paul once so aptly believed, these thoughts have vanished. Paul has only his own life to look forward to; the belief that his future will be his redemption. Until this becomes a viable possibility, Paul thinks only of his present state. He has indeed changed since his humble beginnings as a young man, and now as a relic of his time, he considers himself "crude and sorrowful and superficial" (123). With these thoughts comes an eventual regret and anger, and throwing his wasted years and corrupted moral conflicts back at his perception of his government, Paul testifies "we were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world, and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war"(88). It is here at this point in his life that Paul finally begins to understand what is happening to himself. He forgets his pride and loyalty. They are of no importance. He stops trusting the system he once embraced. He is no longer artificial or captive, or even disillusioned. Paul has new friends and beliefs and rules. And every wound he ensues in battle, every meal of which he is deprived, every comrade of his that falls in battle, Paul is made stronger, and is born again.
As Paul lives out his existence in the war that he has helped make for himself, he falls, perhaps willingly, into a pit of hellish insanity that has resulted from a loss of friends, innocence, and optimism. Because he is no longer living in a world that functions based on structure, logic, and intelligence, he becomes a drone; a machine that must relentlessly destroy, without a sense of doubt, regret, or morality. And so begins the final account into Paul's disillusionment...
It is implied that Paul has possibly never explored the whole of his country, and that his life once existed solely around his residence, community, and homeland. Since the war is being fought to claim places he has never even seen, Paul begins to observe less relevance in his own contribution. Certainly he has no quarrel over land. As Kat, one of Paul's close friends (and also his last) so aptly describes, "All of us are simple folk...why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? It is merely the rulers. [The French soldiers] weren't asked about it any more than we were" (205). In many ways, Paul never questioned or was questioned about his involvement. He simply believed he was defending his homeland. Would he have felt the same way if he had known his nation was being operated by ravenous corporate dictators, concerned only with their own prosperity and unmoved by its population's suffering? Paul's misapprehension is that he is defending a noble and dignified country against a rival group of thieves whose purpose is to raid his land and steal all that he loves. His reality is that he is the thief; he is the one trying to rob from those who love their country as much as he loves his. Paul's is everything that he has been trained to hate, and to fear, and to destroy. This is his disillusionment.
Throughout Paul's journey into the unknown, it seems he always describes his present as if he is constantly thinking of his future. But does Paul truly believe he has a tangible opportunity in life after the war? He alleges how his "knowledge of life is limited to death," and then asks, "What will happen afterwards? And what shall become of [my generation]" (264). Paul comes to accept that his future is just as bleak as the lifeless wasteland he inhabits. At a time when he should be living his own existence, he survives in the shadow of the war. Surrounded by conflict, and exiled from bliss or even contentment, the simple joys Paul could once have are but distant memories. He does not understand his life or meaning, so he can only look on to his death, wherein he has no significance. The First World War was never "won." Instead, it simply collapsed. Similarly, Paul did not emerge from the war; his life was fought for and lost on the battlefield. And yet at last, after having endured the horrors of his reality for so long, Paul was finally fulfilled--his life, of which he had no will to continue, was lost, and Paul, the soldier of glory, the iron youth of his generation, was at peace. But what keeps Paul alive for so long? What stops him from jumping off the ledge into an ocean of delirium and anguish? Other than his strength and courage, Paul lives under the illusion that he will be remembered as a hero even if he does not feel he is one. That his efforts were not in vein, and that he is benefiting humanity by fighting is Paul's incentive, but not his reality, as Paul is perfectly aware. He admits, "Men will not understand us...the war will be forgotten...the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin" (294), symbolizing Paul's worthlessness not only to himself, but also to the future of humanity. Perhaps no war is justified, but many are necessary, fought so that the future hopefully maintains peace. Paul's war is fought over petty ideals, a result of the abuse of supreme control. Acton, an esteemed historical thinker once said, "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and indeed, in the case of Paul's government, this is especially true. Its greed has destroyed Paul's life, and ended his future. Paul's dream is that someday, he will be of value to humanity. But he misunderstands, and his efforts will eventually be forgotten. Paul's only value is to himself, and even that importance eventually fades. This is his disillusionment.
Paul's transition from the innocent adolescence of his youth into his more confused, apathetic, and violent embodiment can be summed up in a single chain of events, which begins after the murder of Gerard Duval. Paul, it seems, is so distraught by the enemy soldier's death that he begins to hate the war for awakening long dormant emotions of anger and resentment within him. Paul also begins to despise himself for allowing the war to bring such strong anxiety and tension upon himself, and change him into a vicious animal. And yet, once his identity is confronted, hope of redemption arises from the despairs of his soul. He promises, "If I come out of [this battle alive] comrade, I will fight against this...I promise you, it shall never happen again" (226). Paul has finally realized his own lack of morality has resulted because the war has corrupted his will, his beliefs, and his thoughts. If only Paul were stronger, he could take what he finally understands about himself, and use it to better his own life, and end his hatred. Renewed in goodwill, he could defy his government's selfish orders, and restore meaning to his embittered existence. And for a moment, perhaps this was the way Paul envisioned his future, perhaps this was his salvation, his recovery from the disillusionment of war. Perhaps, but it is not. As Paul's own window of opportunity broadens, his hope for fulfilling his obligations begins to diminish. The battle is over, and Paul climbs out of the tomb in which he was forced to hide for so long. And as he leaves Gerard behind, he pledges, "I will fulfill everything, fulfill everything I have promised you," but all the while, somewhere inside, he knows "I shall not do so" (226). So easily are words spoken, but so seldom are they followed. Paul has returned to the world of the living, and upon his arrival, the viewpoint he once accepted has also revisited him. Paul has already begun to overlook what he once so aptly swore. Then, after he had once again re-established himself within his camp, Paul observes how the snipers above him are able to comfortably execute human life and still seem oblivious and content with the abomination they are committing. Comparing this act with his own, Paul responds, "It was only because I had to lie there with [Duval] for so long. After all, war is war" (229). Free from the confines of his isolated trench, Paul has forced himself to forget his own promises and confessions with a dying enemy. Now, safe amongst his friends once more, Paul understands that he is no rebel; he cannot embrace peace when he himself has none. So instead, he reaches out to the war, with open arms, knowing full well that it has destroyed him. And Paul finally accepts himself for what he has become. He is his country's pawn, and if he malfunctions, he risks being destroyed. As long as he remains functional, he must continue to destroy, however, and this is Paul's reality. This is his disillusionment.
In "All Quiet on the Western Front", Remarque has voiced that to romanticize war and perceive hope and glory as ideals of conflict is to fall victim to an illusion. Such thoughts are reveries, and they exist solely to hide away reality, and blind the inconsiderate from seeing the truth. There is no hope, but only failure. And there is no glory, but only despair. Most importantly, in war there is no winner--for everyone, no matter how weak or how powerful, has inevitably lost that which can never be reclaimed: Life.
Written November 12 - December 4, 2002Comments? Criticisims? Send an email to: Samson .
Revised January 7, 2003