Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a very interesting and true-to-heart novel based in the first world war where many men and women died because someone called them the enemy. The main character is Paul Baumer, a nineteen year old man who is swept into the war, along with his friends, not one day before he is out of school. They are sent to the front to “protect the fatherland” or Germany as it is called.
Paul and his friends go from this idealistic opinion to disillusionment throughout the book as they discover the truth that the enemy is just like them, and Paul’s friends start being killed one-by-one. This novel is a gripping account of how war is most of the time bloody and horrid. The few who came out of this war were not the people they were when they left. They become pale and emotionless, without feeling or thought. Some killed themselves, they had experienced ultimate horror, the horror of war. The novel starts two years after Paul and his friends first reached the front and then goes back and forth between present and past.
The main topics throughout the book is the change from idealism to disillusionment, the loss of Paul’s friends, and especially the loss of Paul’s innocence. The change from idealism to disillusionment is really the driving force behind the novel. From young school boys, listening to their schoolmaster asking “Won’t you join up comrades?”(11) to “weary, broken”(294) men, idealism and disillusionment play a major role on Paul’s decisions and thoughts. For example, on the second page of the novel, Paul says, “It would not be such a bad war if only one could get a little more sleep.” (2) Later in the book, a disillusioned Paul says of the same war, “I see how people are set against one another and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”(263) Even though he has been in the war two years, the first quote shows how Paul’s idealism is still strong. In the second quote, Paul sees the war for what it truly is, a waste of time, food, money, and young men.
The scar of war left a deep gash in the mind of Paul Baumer. The loss of Paul’s friends was a factor that increased Paul’s change from a young, proud idealist to a weary, disillusioned soldier. When Kemmerich, Paul’s friend, died, Paul felt happy to be alive and senses everything “as never before.”(30) As more of Paul’s friends die, he realizes just how bad this war is . Not did his friends brings this to his eyes, but other people he sees, the new soldier who loses his mind, the lance-corporal who lost his head, and the dying French soldier whom Paul saw as a person, not a monster as the Kaiser would have him believe. These people and many others were pivotal in the breaking down of Paul’s idealism.
However, this is not a very positive way to find reality as people had to die to show Paul how the war really is and how it effects him and what friends he has. The second main topic is the loss of Paul’s innocence. Paul is a smart man before the war, who enjoys reading and drawing. He had a bright future ahead, but the war killed his future. Every man he knew wanted him to join the war, defend Germany, and come back a hero. When he heard the first shell, saw the first man die, killed his one of the enemy, he was never the same Paul again. The reader sees this when Paul goes home on fourteen day leave. He wants to “think (himself) back into that time,”(171) when he felt the exhilaration of picking up books and falling into an abyss of wild illusion. But when he looks at his books, his bed, his old clothes, and his drawings, he experiences “a terrible feeling of foreigness.”(172)
In the end, as Paul stands up in the trench, right before his death, he combines the young, idealistic Paul, and the ruthless, weary soldier Paul. He has a single unity in both, a unity that gives him the reality that war is not as bloodless as he thought. The discovery that the enemy was as human as Paul did not come until late in the book, when he was back from the training base far from the front. Not only did his idealism cover him from this truth, but training did also had a hand in it. Everyday in boot camp, he was tried to kill without thought or provocation. He never had the chance to really look into the eyes of the enemy. They said the Allies were not to be trusted. It wasn’t until he saw what he had done to “the printer, Gerard Duval” (225) did he finally see the true enemy, “the Kaiser.”(205)