All Quiet On The Western Front

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All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel set in World War I, centers around the

changes wrought by the war on one young German soldier. During his time in the

war, Remarques protagonist, Paul Baumer, changes from a rather innocent

Romantic to a hardened and somewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during

the course of this metamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself from those

societal iconsparents, elders, school, religionthat had been the

foundation of his pre-enlistment days. This rejection comes about as a result of

Baumers realization that the pre-enlistment society simply does not

understand the reality of the Great War. His new society, then, becomes the

Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because that is a group which does

understand the truth as Baumer has experienced it. Remarque demonstrates

Baumers disaffiliation from the traditional by emphasizing the language of

Baumers pre- and post-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or chooses

not to, communicate truthfully with those representatives of his pre-enlistment

and innocent days. Further, he is repulsed by the banal and meaningless language

that is used by members of that society. As he becomes alienated from his

former, traditional, society, Baumer simultaneously is able to communicate

effectively only with his military comrades. Since the novel is told from the

first person point of view, the reader can see how the words Baumer speaks are

at variance with his true feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarque

maintains that “a generation of men … were destroyed by the war” (Remarque,

All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the meaning of

language itself is, to a great extent, destroyed. Early in the novel, Baumer

notes how his elders had been facile with words prior to his enlistment.

Specifically, teachers and parents had used words, passionately at times, to

persuade him and other young men to enlist in the war effort. After relating the

tale of a teacher who exhorted his students to enlist, Baumer states that

“teachers always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and

trot them out by the hour” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Baumer admits that

he, and others, were fooled by this rhetorical trickery. Parents, too, were not

averse to using words to shame their sons into enlisting. “At that time

even ones parents were ready with the word coward” (Remarque, All

Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days, Baumer asserts that, as a result of his

war experiences, he has learned how shallow the use of these words was. Indeed,

early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that although authority figures

taught that duty to ones country is the greatest thing, we already knew that

death-throes are stronger. But for all that, we were no mutineers, no deserters,

no cowardsthey were very free with these expressions. We loved our country as

much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished

the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. (Remarque, All Quiet I. 17)

What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words and expressions used

by the pillars of society do not reflect the reality of war and of ones

participation in it. As the novel progresses, Baumer himself uses words in a

similarly false fashion. A number of instances of Baumers own misuse of

language occur during an important episode in the novela period of leave when

he visits his home town. This leave is disastrous for Baumer because he realizes

that he can not communicate with the people on the home front because of his

military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent, understanding of the

war. When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer is overwhelmed at being

home. His joy and relief are such that he cannot speak; he can only weep (Remarque,

All Quiet VII. 140). When he and his mother greet each other, he realizes

immediately that he has nothing to say to her: “We say very little and I am

thankful that she asks nothing” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 141). But finally

she does speak 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 from hearing of the chaotic conditions from which he

has just returned. He thinks 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

isnt 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 and himself. Clearly, as Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not for the

uninitiated. On another level, however, Baumer cannot respond to his mothers

question: he understands that the experiences he has had are so overwhelming

that a “civilian” language, or any language at all, would be

ineffective in describing them. Trying to replicate the experience and horrors

of the war via words is impossible, Baumer realizes, and so he lies. Any attempt

at telling the truth would, in fact, trivialize its reality. During the course

of his leave, Baumer also sees his father. The fact that he does not wish to

speak with his parent (i.e., use few or no words at all) shows Baumers

movement away from the traditional institution of the family. Baumer reports

that his father “is curious about the war in a way that I find stupid and

distressing; I no longer 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 the

danger, of trying to relate the reality of the war via language. There is

nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I realize he does not know

that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it willingly, but it is too

dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then

become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. (Remarque, All Quiet

VII. 146) Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the experience of war

meaningful within a verbal context: the war is too big, the words describing it

would have to be correspondingly immense and, with their symbolic size, might

become uncontrollable and, hence, meaningless. While with his father, Baumer

meets other men who are certain that they know how to fight and win the war.

Ultimately, Baumer says of 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 that the words

of his fathers generation are meaningless in that they do not reflect the

realities of the world and of the war as Baumer has come to understand them.

Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallen comrade, Kemmerich.

As he did with his own mother, he lies, this time in an attempt to shield her

from the details of her sons lingering death. Moreover, in this conversation,

we see Baumer rejecting yet another one of the traditional societys

foundations: religious orthodoxy. He assures Kemmerichs mother that her son

“died immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite

calm” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). Frau Kemmerich doesnt believe

him, or, at least, chooses not to. She asks him to swear “by everything

that is sacred to” him (that is, to God, as far as she is concerned) 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 to communicate honestly with a member of the home front

and his rejection of the God of that society. Thus, another break with an aspect

of his pre-enlistment society is effected through Baumers conscious misuse of

language. During his leave, perhaps Baumers most striking realization of the

vacuity of words in his former society occurs when he is alone in his old room

in his parents house. After being unsuccessful in feeling a part of his old

society by speaking with his mother and his father and his fathers friends,

Baumer attempts to reaffiliate with his past by once again becoming a resident

of the place. Here, among his mementos, the pictures and postcards on the wall,

the familiar and comfortable brown leather sofa, Baumer waits for something that

will allow him to feel a part of his pre-enlistment world. It is his old

schoolbooks that symbolize that older, more contemplative, less military world

and which Baumer hopes will bring him back to his younger innocent ways. I want

that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I

used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose

from the colored backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead

lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the

future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the

lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait. (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 151) But

Baumer continues to wait and the sign does not come; the quiet rapture does not

occur. The room itself, and the pre-enlistment world it represents, become alien

to him. “A sudden feeling of foreignness suddenly rises in me. I cannot

find my way back” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 152). Baumer understands that

he is irredeemably lost to the primitive, military, non-academic world of the

war. Ultimately, the books are worthless because the words in 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 the beast, to the point where it has no meaning.

Baumer shows his rejection of that traditional society by refusing to, or being

unable to, use the standards of its language. Contrasted with Baumers

experiences during his visit home are his dealings with his fellow trench

soldiers. Unlike Baumers feelings at home where he chooses not to speak with

his father and makes an empty vow to Frau Kemmerich, Baumer is able to effect

true communication, of both a verbal and spiritual kind, with his fellow trench

soldiers. Indeed, within this group, words can have a meaningful, soothing, even

rejuvenating, effect. Not long after his return from leave, Baumer and some of

his comrades go out on patrol to ascertain the enemys strength. During this

patrol, Baumer is pinned down in a shell hole, becomes disoriented, and suffers

a panic attack. He states: “Tormented, terrified, in my imagination, I see

the grey, implacable muzzle of a rifle which moves noiselessly before me

whichever way I try to turn my head” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 184-85). He

is unable to regain his equanimity until he hears voices behind him. He

recognizes the voices and realizes that he is close to his comrades in his own

trench. The effect of his fellow soldiers words on Baumer is antithetical to

the effect his fathers and his fathers friends empty words have on him.

At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words …

behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by

which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life these voices,

they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most

comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices 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 and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler,

a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that

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 towns citizens empty words, the words of Baumers

comrades actually go beyond their literal meanings. That is, whereas Baumer

notices that the words of the traditional world have no meaning, the words of

his comrades have more meaning than even they are aware of. In fact, true

communication can exist in the world of the war with few or no words said at

all. This phenomenon is perhaps best demonstrated in the novel during a scene

involving Baumer and his Second Company mate, Stanislaus Katczinsky. This scene,

with its Eucharistic overtones, can be counterpoised to Baumers meeting with

Kemmerichs mother. During that meeting, Frau Kemmerich insisted on some kind

of verbal attestation of Baumers spiritual disposition. As noted above, he is

quite willing to give her such an asseveration because the words he uses in

doing so mean nothing to him. With Katczinsky, though, the situation is

different because the spirituality of the event is such that words are not

necessary, in fact, would be hindrances to the communion Baumer and Katczinsky

attain. The scene is a simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky have stolen a

goose, in a small deserted lean-to they eat it together. We sit opposite one

another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle

of the night. We dont talk much, but I believe we have a more complete

communion with one another than even lovers have … The grease drips from our

hands, in our hearts we are close to one another … we sit with a goose between

us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak. (Remarque, All

Quiet V. 87) These elemental and primitive activities of getting and then eating

food bring about a communion, a feeling “in unison,” between the two

men that clearly cannot be found in the word-heavy environment of Baumers

home town. Perhaps Remarque wants to make the point that true communication can

occur only in action, or in silence, or almost accidentally. At any rate, Baumer

demonstrates toward the end of his life that even he is not immune from verbal

duplicity of a kind that was used on him to get him to enlist. Soon after he

hears the comforting words of his comrades (see above), Baumer is caught in

another shell hole during the bombardment. Here, he is forced to kill a

Frenchman who jumps into it while attacking the German lines. Baumer is

horrified at his action. He notes, “This is the first time I have killed

with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing” (Remarque,

All Quiet IX. 193). That is, the war, and his part in it, have become much more

personalized because now he can actually see the face of his enemy. In his

grief, Baumer takes the dead mans pocket-book from him so that he can find

out the deceaseds name and family situation. Realizing that the man he killed

is no monster, that, in fact, he had a family, and is evidently very much like

himself, Baumer begins to make promises to the corpse. He indicates that he will

write to his family and goes so far as to promise the corpse that he, Baumer,

will take his place on earth: “I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval.

I must be a printer” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197). More importantly,

Baumer renounces his status as soldier by apologizing to the corpse for killing

him. “Comrade, I did not want to kill you … You were only an idea to me

before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate

response. It was that abstraction I stabbed … 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 agonyForgive me, comrade; how could

you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my

brother just like Kat …” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 195) In addition to the

obvious brotherhood of nations sentiment that appears in Baumers eulogy, it

is interesting to note that Baumer sees that Duval could have been even

closerlike Katczinsky, a member of Baumers inner circle of Second Company.

All of the sentiments, all of the words, that Baumer articulates to 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 has made. He cannot write to Duvals family;

it would be beyond impropriety to do so. Moreover, Baumer renounces his

brotherhood sentiments: “Today you, tomorrow me” (Remarque, All Quiet

IX. 197). Soon, Baumer admits, “I think no more of the dead man, he is of

no consequence to me now” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). And later, to

hedge his bets in case there happens to be justice in the universe, Baumer

states, “Now merely to avert any ill-luck, I babble mechanically: I will

fulfill everything, fulfill everything I have promised you but already I

know that I shall not do so” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). Remarques

point in this episode is clear: no one is exempt from the perversion of language

vis-a-vis the war. Even Paul Baumer, who had been disgusted by the

meaninglessness of language as demonstrated in his home town, himself uses words

and language that are meaningless. Once he is reunited with his comrades after

the shell hole episode, Baumer admits “it was mere drivelling nonsense that

I talked out there in the shell-hole” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 199). Why

does Baumer do it? Why does he employ the same types of vacuous words and

sentiments that his elders and teachers had used and for which he has no

respect? “It was only because I had to lie One assumes that this double

meaning is apparent only in English. there with him so long … After all, war

is war” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 200). Ultimately, that is all that Paul

Baumer and the reader are left with: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot

even be discussed with any accuracy. It has no sense and, in fact, is the

embodiment of a lack of any kind of meaning. In All Quiet on the Western Front,

Erich Maria Remarque shows the disorder created by the war. This disorder

affects such elemental societal institutions as the family, the schools, and the

church. Moreover, the war is so chaotic that it infects the basic abilities, not

the least of which is verbal, of humanity itself. By showing how the First World

War deleteriously affects the syntax of language, Remarque is able to

demonstrate how the war irreparably alters the order of the world itself.


Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine

Books, 1984.

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