All Quiet on the Western FrontErich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a novelset in World War I, centers around the changes wrought by the war onone young German soldier. During his time in the war, Remarque’sprotagonist, Paul Baumer, changes from a rather innocent Romantic to ahardened and somewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during thecourse of this metamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself from thosesocietal iconsparents, elders, school, religionthat had been thefoundation of his pre-enlistment days. This rejection comes about as aresult of Baumer’s realization that the pre-enlistment society simplydoes not understand the reality of the Great War.
His new society,then, becomes the Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because that isa group which does understand the truth as Baumer has experienced it.
Remarque demonstrates Baumer’s disaffiliation from thetraditional by emphasizing the language of Baumer’spre- and post-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or choosesnot to, communicate truthfully with those representatives of hispre-enlistment and innocent days. Further, he is repulsed by the banaland meaningless language that is used by members of that society.
Ashe becomes alienated from his former, traditional, society, Baumersimultaneously is able to communicate effectively only with hismilitary comrades. Since the novel is told from the first person pointof view, the reader can see how the words Baumer speaks are atvariance with his true feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarquemaintains that “a generation of men … were destroyed by the war”(Remarque, All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in All Quiet on the WesternFront, the meaning of language itself is, to a great extent,destroyed.
Early in the novel, Baumer notes how his elders had been facilewith words prior to his enlistment. Specifically, teachers and parentshad used words, passionately at times, to persuade him and other youngmen to enlist in the war effort. After relating the tale of a teacherwho exhorted his students to enlist, Baumer states that “teachersalways carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trotthem out by the hour” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Baumer admits thathe, and others, were fooled by this rhetorical trickery. Parents,too, were not averse to using words to shame their sons intoenlisting. “At that time even one’s parents were ready with theword coward’” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days,Baumer asserts that, as a result of his war experiences, he haslearned how shallow the use of these words was. Indeed, early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that althoughauthority figures taught that duty to one’s country is the greatestthing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for allthat, we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowardsthey were veryfree with these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; wewent courageously into every action; but also we distinguished thefalse from true, we had suddenly learned to see. (Remarque, All QuietI. 17)What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words andexpressions used by the pillars of society do not reflect the realityof war and of one’s participation in it. As the novel progresses,Baumer himself uses words in a similarly false fashion.
A number of instances of Baumer’s own misuse of language occurduring an important episode in the novela period of leave when hevisits his home town. This leave is disastrous for Baumer because herealizes that he can not communicate with the people on the home frontbecause of his military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent,understanding of the war.
When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer isoverwhelmed at being home. His joy and relief are such that he cannotspeak; he can only weep (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 140). When he andhis mother greet each other, he realizes immediately that he hasnothing to say to her: “We say very little and I am thankful that sheasks nothing” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 141). But finally she doesspeak to him and asks, “’Was it very bad out there, Paul?’” (Remarque,All Quiet VII. 143).
Here, when he answers, he lies, ostensibly to protect her fromhearing of the chaotic conditions from which he has just returned. Hethinks tohimself, Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not understand, you could never realize it. And you never shall realize it. Was it bad, you ask.You, Mother,–I shake my head and say: “No, Mother, not so very. There are always a lot of us together so it isn’t so bad.” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 143)Even in trying to protect her, by using words that are false,Baumer creates a separation between his mother andhimself. Clearly, as Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not for theuninitiated. On another level, however, Baumer cannot respond to hismother’s question: he understands that the experiences he has had areso overwhelming that a “civilian” language, or any language at all,would be ineffective in describing them. Trying to replicate theexperience and horrors of the war via words is impossible, Baumerrealizes, and so he lies. Any attempt at telling the truth would, infact, trivialize its reality.
During the course of his leave, Baumer also sees his father. Thefact that he does not wish to speak with his parent (i.e., use few orno words at all) shows Baumer’s movement away from the traditionalinstitution of the family. Baumer reports that his father “is curiousabout the war in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I nolonger have any real contact with him” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146).
In considering the demands of his father to discuss the war, Baumer,once again, realizes the impossibility, and, in this case, even thedanger, of trying to relate the reality of the war via language.
There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. Irealize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; Iwould do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to putthese things into words. I am afraid they might then becomegigantic and I be no longer able to master them.
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146)Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the experience ofwar meaningful within a verbal context: the war is too big, the wordsdescribing it would have to be correspondingly immense and, with theirsymbolic size, might become uncontrollable and, hence, meaningless.
While with his father, Baumer meets other men who are certainthat they know how to fight and win the war. Ultimately, Baumer saysof his father and of these men that “they talk too much for me …They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too,but only with words, only with words” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 149).
Baumer is driven away from the older men because he understands thatthe words of his father’s generation are meaningless in that they donot reflect the realities of the world and of the war as Baumer hascome to understand them.
Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallencomrade, Kemmerich. As he did with his own mother, he lies, this timein an attempt to shield her from the details of her son’s lingeringdeath. Moreover, in this conversation, we see Baumer rejecting yetanother one of the traditional society’s foundations: religiousorthodoxy. He assures Kemmerich’s mother that her son “’diedimmediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quitecalm’” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). Frau Kemmerich doesn’t believehim, or, at least, chooses not to. She asks him to swear “byeverything that is sacred to” him (that is, to God, as far as she isconcerned) that what he says is true (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160).
He does so easily because he realizes that nothing is sacred to him.
By perverting this oath, Baumer shows both his unwillingness tocommunicate honestly with a member of the home front and his rejectionof the God of that society. Thus, another break with an aspect of hispre-enlistment society is effected through Baumer’s conscious misuseof language.
During his leave, perhaps Baumer’s most striking realization ofthe vacuity of words in his former society occurs when he is alone inhis old room in his parents’ house. After being unsuccessful infeeling a part of his old society by speaking with his mother and hisfather and his father’s friends, Baumer attempts to reaffiliate withhis past by once again becoming a resident of the place. Here, amonghis mementos, the pictures and postcards on the wall, the familiar andcomfortable brown leather sofa, Baumer waits for something that willallow him to feel a part of his pre-enlistment world. It is his oldschoolbooks that symbolize that older, more contemplative, lessmilitary world and which Baumer hopes will bring him back to hisyounger innocent ways. I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the samepowerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to mybooks. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloredbacks of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, deadlump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again theimpatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought,it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sitand wait.
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 151)But Baumer continues to wait and the sign does not come; thequiet rapture does not occur. The room itself, and the pre-enlistmentworld it represents, become alien to him. “A sudden feeling offoreignness suddenly rises in me. I cannot find my way back”(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 152). Baumer understands that he isirredeemably lost to the primitive, military, non-academic world ofthe war. Ultimately, the books are worthless because the wordsin them are meaningless. “Words, Words, Wordsthey do not reach me.
Slowly I place the books back in the shelves. Nevermore” (Remarque,All Quiet VII. 153). In his experiences with traditional society,Baumer perverts language, that which separates the human from thebeast, to the point where it has no meaning. Baumer shows hisrejection of that traditional society by refusing to, or being unableto, use the standards of its language.
Contrasted with Baumer’s experiences during his visit home arehis dealings with his fellow trench soldiers. Unlike Baumer’s feelingsat home where he chooses not to speak with his father and makes anempty vow to Frau Kemmerich, Baumer is able to effect truecommunication, of both a verbal and spiritual kind, with his fellowtrench soldiers. Indeed, within this group, words can have ameaningful, soothing, even rejuvenating, effect.
Not long after his return from leave, Baumer and some of hiscomrades go out on patrol to ascertain the enemy’s strength. Duringthis patrol, Baumer is pinned down in a shell hole, becomesdisoriented, and suffers a panic attack. He states: “Tormented,terrified, in my imagination, I see the grey, implacable muzzle of arifle which moves noiselessly before me whichever way I try to turn myhead” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 184-85). He is unable to regain hisequanimity until he hears voices behind him. He recognizes the voicesand realizes that he is close to his comrades in his own trench. Theeffect of his fellow soldiers’ words on Baumer is antithetical tothe effect his father’s and his father’s friends’ empty words have onhim.
At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quietwords … behind me recall me at a bound from the terribleloneliness and fear of death by which I had been almostdestroyed. They are more to me than life these voices, they aremore than motherliness and more than fear; they are thestrongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are thevoices of my comrades.
I am no longer … alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear andthe same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harderway; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these wordsthat have saved me and will stand by me.
(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 186)Here, Baumer understands the reviving effects of his comrades’words. Strikingly, as opposed to his town’s citizens’ empty words, thewords of Baumer’s comrades actually go beyond their literal meanings.
That is, whereas Baumer notices that the words of the traditionalworld have no meaning, the words of his comrades have more meaningthan even they are aware of.
In fact, true communication can exist in the world of the warwith few or no words said at all. This phenomenon is perhaps bestdemonstrated in the novel during a scene involving Baumer and hisSecond Company mate, Stanislaus Katczinsky. This scene, with itsEucharistic overtones, can be counterpoised to Baumer’s meetingwith Kemmerich’s mother. During that meeting, Frau Kemmerich insistedon some kind of verbal attestation of Baumer’s spiritual disposition.
As noted above, he is quite willing to give her such an asseverationbecause the words he uses in doing so mean nothing to him. WithKatczinsky, though, the situation is different because thespirituality of the event is such that words are not necessary, infact, would be hindrances to the communion Baumer and Katczinskyattain.
The scene is a simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky have stolen agoose, in a small deserted lean-to they eat it together.
We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabbycoats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talkmuch, but I believe we have a more complete communion with oneanother than even lovers have … The grease drips from ourhands, in our hearts we are close to one another … we sit witha goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we donot even speak.
(Remarque, All Quiet V. 87)These elemental and primitive activities of getting and theneating food bring about a communion, a feeling “in unison,” betweenthe two men that clearly cannot be found in the word-heavy environmentof Baumer’s home town. Perhaps Remarque wants to make the point thattrue communication can occur only in action, or in silence, or almostaccidentally. At any rate, Baumer demonstrates toward the end of hislife that even he is not immune from verbal duplicity of a kind thatwas used on him to get him to enlist. Soon after he hears thecomforting words of his comrades (see above), Baumer is caught inanother shell hole during the bombardment. Here, he is forced to killa Frenchman who jumps into it while attacking the German lines. Baumeris horrified at his action. He notes, “This is the first time I havekilled with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is mydoing” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 193). That is, the war, and his partin it, have become much more personalized because now he can actuallysee the face of his enemy. In his grief, Baumer takes the dead man’spocket-book from him so that he can find out the deceased’s name andfamily situation. Realizing that the man he killed is no monster,that, in fact, he had a family, and is evidently very muchlike himself, Baumer begins to make promises to the corpse. Heindicates that he will write to his family and goes so far as topromise the corpse that he, Baumer, will take his place on earth: “’Ihave killed the printer, Gerard Duval. I must be a printer’”(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197). More importantly, Baumer renounces hisstatus as soldier by apologizing to the corpse for killing him.
“Comrade, I did not want to kill you … You were only an idea tome before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forthits appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed …Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they nevertell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers arejust as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death,and the same dying and the same agonyForgive me, comrade; howcould you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and thisuniform you could be my brother just like Kat …”(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 195)In addition to the obvious brotherhood of nations sentiment thatappears in Baumer’s eulogy, it is interesting to note that Baumer seesthat Duval could have been even closerlike Katczinsky, a member ofBaumer’s inner circle of Second Company.
All of the sentiments, all of the words, that Baumer articulatesto Duval are admirable, but they are absolutely false. As time passes,as he spends more time with the corpse of Duval in the shell-hole,Baumer realizes that he will not fulfill the various promises he hasmade. He cannot write to Duval’s family; it would be beyondimpropriety to do so. Moreover, Baumer renounces his brotherhoodsentiments: “Today you, tomorrow me” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197).
Soon, Baumer admits, “I think no more of the dead man, he is of noconsequence to me now” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). And later, tohedge his bets in case there happens to be justice in the universe,Baumer states, “Now merely to avert any ill-luck, I babblemechanically: I will fulfill everything, fulfill everything I havepromised you but already I know that I shall not do so” (Remarque,All Quiet IX. 198). Remarque’s point in this episode is clear: no one is exempt fromthe perversion of language vis-a-vis the war. Even Paul Baumer, whohad been disgusted by the meaninglessness of language as demonstratedin his home town, himself uses words and language that aremeaningless. Once he is reunited with his comrades after the shellhole episode, Baumer admits “it was mere drivelling nonsense that Italked out there in the shell-hole” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 199). Whydoes Baumer do it? Why does he employ the same types of vacuous wordsand sentiments that his elders and teachers had used and for which hehas no respect? “It was only because I had to lie One assumes thatthis double meaning is apparent only in English. there with him solong … After all, war is war” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 200).
Ultimately, that is all that Paul Baumer and the reader are leftwith: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot even be discussedwith any accuracy. It has no sense and, in fact, is the embodiment ofa lack of any kind of meaning. In All Quiet on the Western Front,Erich Maria Remarque shows the disorder created by the war. Thisdisorder affects such elemental societal institutions as the family,the schools, and the church. Moreover, the war is so chaotic that itinfects the basic abilities, not the least of which is verbal, ofhumanity itself. By showing how the First World War deleteriouslyaffects the syntax of language, Remarque is able to demonstrate howthe war irreparably alters the order of the world itself.
—WORK CITEDRemarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
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