All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is a stunning deliberate first-person narrative about the life of German soldiers at times of the World War I. Instead of depicting glorious battles and valiance, Remarque concentrates on the day-to-day routine, which includes rest, meals, search for a place to sleep, relations among soldiers and their commanders, death and that unique friendship that can develop in war conditions only.
The book title has become a colloquial impression, meaning stagnation and lack of development in any aspect.
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The statement of the book’s essence is concluded in the preface: “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.”
Chapter 1 is mostly dedicated to the introduction of main characters. The narrator, the nineteen years old and already battle-hardened Paul Bäumer, enjoys a wonderfully good day, while he and his company are only nine kilometers from the front lines, resting. They were at the front line for two weeks; at the beginning, there were one hundred and fifty men and everything was relatively quiet, but at the last day they were reduced to eighty. The cook, Ginger, is not aware of these losses, so he prepares a meal for one hundred and fifty. Remaining soldiers immediately take this advantage, receiving double portions of beans, sausage and smokes.
Paul describes his comrades. They are Albert Kropp, “the clearest thinker”, Müller who keeps his studying even at the front line, and Leer, a bearded devoted admirer of officers’ brothels. These four are schoolmates from Paul’s class. Along with them he describes Tjaden, a locksmith with an incredible appetite, thin as a rake, nineteen;
Haie Westhus, a peat digger with huge hands, nineteen, and Detering, a peasant, whose thoughts are always dedicated to his wife and his farm. The last but far from least is Stanislav Katczinsky, “Kat”, a shrewd and cunning character with extreme intuition: he literally “smells” danger, food and additional comfort. He is a former cobbler, aged forty, twice the boys’ age, and a good friend.
After a good meal, it’s time to visit the lavatory. Paul makes a whole philosophy on this basis, drawing the line between recruits and veterans in their attitude to natural functions of human organisms, because veterans have already left their excessive shyness behind. Three friends – Kropp, Müller and Paul – take their time away from the front line, playing cards, reading mail and enjoy being in comparatively quiet and beautiful place, on the field of poppies. Kropp mentions one of their comrades, Franc Kemmerich, who landed in the aid station. He also produces a letter with “hello” from Kantoreck. This makes his comrades laugh.
Kantoreck was their schoolmaster and he was the main reason of their present occupation. He literally pushed them into volunteering, making patriotic speeches on war glory and hinting on cowardice and dishonor. His efforts led to the whole school class volunteering, except for the fat and kind Joseph Behm. He succumbed at last and died one of the first, blinded and maddened by pain. Of course, it’s not Kantoreck’s fault, but Paul bitterly mentions that there are thousands of such Kanotrecks, who, instead of helping young people to enter mature life, were merely the talented speech-makers, incapable of anything else, while their students died, suffered and felt lonely and abandoned in a new world, completely strange and awful.
Three friends go to visit Kemmerich. At the first sight, they understand that Kemmerich is dying, even while he is still not aware of his condition. He even does not realize that his foot was amputated. They are chattering, trying to calm him down and not to reveal the truth. Müller spots a pair of good boots under his bed and asks if he can have them. Paul steps on his foot, tipping on unfitness of such remarks.
They promise Kemmerich to visit him tomorrow and bribe an attendant with cigarettes, so he would give Kemmerich some morphine. On their way back Müller speaks about Kemmerich’s boots again, because they are exactly of his size. Kropp drops into a short hysterical fit. After calming down, he informs that Kantorek called them “Iron Youth” in his letter. That leads to a bitter laugher – they are old folks now.
At the beginning of Chapter 2 Paul ponders on his attempts in poetry before the war. All this seems distant and strange now, for they have no roots, no ties or affections. Their lives are completely uncertain.
He also mentions their hardening, using Müller and his concern about Kemmerich’s boots as an example, for Müller is not that heartless and feels really sorry for Kemmerich, but good boots are hard to find, and Kemmerich is dying anyway.
Paul recalls their training, especially the sadistic drill instructor, Himmelstoss, a former postman, who used to torture them with senseless and exhausting tasks. Being taken to the edge, Bäumer and Kropp splashed his legs with excrement, pretending that it happened accidentally. Himmelstoss was furious but helpless, so he subsided a little. Anyway, his harsh drills turned the former schoolboys into much tougher and durable people. It was a time when they had developed the only good thing that war ever gave them – a brotherhood.
Paul visits Kemmerich again and finds him in worsened condition. Now Franc understands that he had an amputation, and that he is dying, so Paul does the only thing he is capable of – tries to divert his friend’s thoughts to pleasing subjects.
Kemmerich dies and Paul leaves to barracks. He runs on his way, taking deep breaths, enjoying each motion of his body, savoring being alive. He delivers the precious boots to Müller, and they fit perfectly. Müller offers him a good piece of sausage and they have their supper, drinking hot tea and rum.
In Chapter 3 replacement troops arrive. They are only two years younger than Paul, but the age difference is obvious, because of newcomers’ lack of experience. Kat invites them to a feast on beans traded from Ginger for three pieces of parachute silk. Bäumer recalls a case when Kat, while staying in a completely deserted village, somehow managed to find some horse meat, a frying pan, salt, fat and two loafs of bread, seemingly out of thin air. Later soldiers also had a convenience of sleeping on straw instead of wire nets, due to Kat’s help.
At rest our heroes fall into philosophical discussion, cursing drilling and foot-stomping. This naturally leads to the mentioning of Himmelstoss. This collective trip down the memory lane is accompanied by a sky battle that causes no emotional reaction.
Paul muses about the ways of humble men like Corporal Himmelstoss turning into such horrendous bullies. Kat makes a speech on influence of power over man. At this Tjaden arrives with a wonderful news: Himmelstoss is sent to the frontline, where they stay.
This leads to an even sweeter memory. Himmelstoss used a harsh way to treat Tjaden’s bladder control problems. Four friends had developed a plan of revenge and carried it out brilliantly: on the evening before their departure, they ambushed Himmelstoss on his way from a local pub, wrapped him in a bedspread and gave him a beat of his life with fists, kicks and a whip. Himmelstoss escaped and never found out who did it, and boys departed to the front in such a cheerful mood that some old man had called them “young heroes”.
In Chapter 4 Paul’s company is on its way to lay wire near the front. While they are passing by a house near the road, Paul overhears geese and hints Kat about a candidate for frying. They arrive to the artillery positions. Shots are thundering; recruits are scared and Kat, hiding his own unease, lectures them about sounds of different missiles. The company goes on with their task, while the bombardment continues. They finish putting the wire long before their lorries return, so Paul even manages to get some sleep, but soon awakes with a jolt. Incoming artillery turns the night into a living hell, and one young soldier literally crawls into Paul’s arms, crying and shaking.
Cries of wounded soldiers are heard from a nearby site, which had several direct hits. Soon the nightmarish cries of horses join them. Detering is furious and shouts to somebody to shoot them and stop their suffering, but attendants have to care for people first. Detering even tries to shoot one horse but Kat stops him, for he can shoot a soldier instead. At last all wounded horses are shot.
At three o’clock, the company reaches its lorries. A new attack begins. Soldiers run for shelter to a cemetery. Paul hides under a splintered coffin. Kat joins him soon, shouting about the gas.
Now there are four men together, Paul, Kat, Albert and someone else. They are in their gas-masks and think about crawling outside. Explosion brings a coffin flying at them, falling on the hand of the fourth man. They try to free him and prevent him from taking his mask off. They are successful: the soldier is unconscious but free from horrible load. When the attack ends, the cemetery is a complete mess of soil, coffins and corpses. The fourth soldier, the same newcomer whom Paul protected not long ago, is badly wounded and would be dead in several excruciating days. Kat even suggests that they should shoot him. Five killed and eight wounded; soldiers return to their barracks under the morning rain.
Chapter 5 starts with lice-killing in quiet setting. At this moment Himmelstoss arrives and desperately tries to start a conversation with his former recruits but fails. Tjaden, steaming with fury, says all he thinks about Corporal and even moons him. Himmelstoss is quick to inform on anyone, so, when he threatens them with tribunal, friends recommend Tjaden to hide somewhere. The confrontation with Himmelstoss ends in the evening, when Lt. Bertink questions Bäumer and Kropp about the assumed insult, so they spill out all disgusting details of his treatment of Tjaden’s bladder problems. It shows Himmelstoss’s true colors, so Tjaden’s punishment is mild and looks more like a rest than arrest.
That night Kat and Paul implement their plan for goose frying. After a rather comical scene of goose abduction, involving fighting with two gees at once, confrontation with a dog and miraculous escape, the scene of cooking the prey follows. The goose is large, so they bring generous portions to Kropp and the ever hungry Tjaden.
In Chapter 6 there are rumors about a possible offensive. The British had strengthened their artillery. Everyone is in morose mood, for in two hours after their descend in trenches, several German missiles hit them, due to wear of gun barrels. Paul recalls his narrow escape of death between two foxholes several months ago. Trenches are infested with rats. After several unsuccessful attempts to save their bread, Detering proposes an ambush with shovels.
This works and rats retreat somewhere. Next day makes everyone even more anxious, for a good portion of cheese was supplied. When rum follows, this means trouble. Several days pass before barrage starts. Men gradually become deaf. Barrage prevents cooks from food delivery. Two attempts to bring some food fail, even Kat is incapable of anything. Now there is nothing but to wait and hope to survive.
In the morning rats flood the trench, so everyone tries to kill them. Later an officer crawls in, carrying a loaf of bread – somebody was successful in raid for food. One of recruits panics and runs from the trench in spite of all efforts of older soldiers to keep him in place. He dies immediately.
A short attack follows. Germans capture some French positions, take a short rest and consume food supplies. At night Paul is on his sentry duty, recalling beloved places of his childhood. Melancholy overcomes him, but when his shift ends, all his thoughts are about a hot meal.
Day by day attacks and counter-attacks follow each other. Paul’s comrades are trying to retrieve the wounded and usually are successful, but one terrible case is mentioned, when a man was not found for two days in spite of his constant shouting. Dead are left without burial, they are just too many.
At nights, when everything is quiet, souvenir hunters go to collect copper bands from missiles and small pieces of parachute silk. Paul mentions butterflies and larks who continue their tiny lives in spite of war. Young soldiers arrive, this means more work instead of help, because their lack of experience makes them easy targets; veterans try to teach and protect them, but anyway they are dying like flies, five to ten per one killed veteran.
During one of attacks, Paul meets Himmelstoss and notes that his nemesis did not join the attack with others. Bäumer returns to see that Himmelstoss is still in the trench, slightly wounded. Paul’s nerves give up, so he grabs the Corporal, shouting in his face and beating him. After all, he kicks Corporal outside and a passing lieutenant shouts at them to join the attacking forces. This brings Himmelstoss to his senses and he runs with others, even outrunning them.
Haie Westhus is killed, same as many others. Only thirty two men of one hundred and fifty have survived.
In Chapter 7 Bäumer’s company is at the field depot, resting. Himmelstoss offers an olive branch in the form of two pounds of sugar and half pound of butter specially for Tjaden. Paul develops a kinder attitude for Corporal; he saw Himmelstoss helping to carry the wounded Haie Westhus. Taking charge of the kitchen, Himmelstoss arranges three days’ duty for them and feeds comrades with the choicest officer meals. An outside observer can think that they are tough-skinned and indifferent to all happening around, but they feel everything and forget nothing.
Paul and Albert find an old theatre poster and are stunned by the look of a pictured girl. For them she is a creature from another world.
Their quarters are located near a channel. While friends are swimming there in the evening, they spot three women on the other side and flirt with them, using broken French language. After a promise of food girls point at their house, meaning that they would wait for the soldiers’ visit. In the night, three bold adventurers, except for Tjaden whom they got drunk, are swimming to the other bank, keeping promised food and cigarettes in their boots above the water. They arrive to the girls, dripping and wearing nothing but boots. A nice supper and love making follows. On their way back comrades nearly bump into Tjaden who runs to the girls’ house in the same scarce outfit.
Bäumer receives seventeen days off to be followed by training. This means six weeks away from the front, so everybody envies him. Paul buys his comrades a drink and leaves.
After a long journey, Paul Bäumer arrives home, where he meets his sister and mother. His mother’s condition is bad, and she is possibly having cancer. Emotions are rarely shown in his family but Paul feels their quiet joy at his arrival and is weakened by his own feelings.
During vacation, Paul prefers wearing civilian clothes. He is not too communicative, because everybody wants to talk to him about war. Paul acknowledges that he underwent a tremendous change during last year. He tries to return to his favorite books and occupations but fails, as he is a completely different person now. At last, he goes to barracks to visit his old friend, Milttelstaedt, and, to his amusement, finds Kantorek in militia troops. This warms his heart, because Milttelstaedt performs a revenge for all his schoolmates, even imitating Kantorek’s his intonations while scorning him for each tiny failure.
The vacation is nearing its end. Paul worries about his mother’s health, thinking that this can be his last chance to see her. He also pays a necessary visit to Kemmerich’s mother, telling her an abridged version of her son’s death. Depressed and regretting his coming home, Paul heads to the training camp.
In Chapter 8 Paul is at his retraining. The habitual atmosphere and fresh air of autumn forest cheer his mind. There is a large camp of Russian prisoners of war nearby, so Paul observes them with curiosity, watching his enemies at close distance. His sister and father visit him, telling that his mother is in the hospital, awaiting for operation. They give him potato cakes and jam made by his mother. When they leave, Paul decides to give cakes to Russians, but realizes that his mother was weak and probably in pain while cooking them, so he saves cakes for the next time and gives Russians only two of them.
In Chapter 9 Paul Bäumer is back at the front and finds his friends. They share the remaining potato cakes and jam. Eight days’ drill follows, as soldiers, temporarily dressed in new tunics, are preparing for the visit of Kaiser. When he appears, Paul is surprised at commonness of Kaiser’s appearance and voice. After the inspection ends, new tunics are returned wherever they belong to.
Paul’s company is back at the frontline. Paul volunteers to go at night patrol and is paralyzed by fear. The sound of his friends’ voices helps him to calm down, so he goes further. After some time he finds himself lost in No Man’s Land, unable to understand where to go. He finds a hiding place and decides to wait. The enemy attack is repulsed and just as Paul is going to leave and join to his comrades, a body falls on him. He strikes it with a small dagger, and the body collapses.
Paul cannot leave, pinned down with a machine-gun fire. While he waits, his enemy shows some signs of life, so Bäumer tries to dress his wounds and gives him some water. The French dies and Paul is forced to spend a complete day and night with his corpse. He even speaks to it, in a momentary fit of madness. At last, Paul gets a chance to return and tries to reach his trench. Kat and Albert meet him and give him some food. Only the next morning he finds the strength to tell them what happened. They calm him down, for such cases are common enough. At this they observe snipers shooting at enemy positions methodically and without any visible emotions, except for pride at a good hit.
In Chapter 10 Paul’s company finds a cozy place of service: they are guarding an abandoned village and a supply dump. They are seven: Kat, Albert, Müller, Tjaden, Leer and Detering are with him. While Paul mourns the death of Haie, these are the last happy moments in the novel.
They make their shelter in a concrete cellar as comfortable as possible, stacking mattresses, blankets and a demountable mahogany bed with canopy. While surveying the territory, Paul and Kat find two suckling pigs and throw a feast on fresh meat, potato cakes and vegetables. The chimney smoke draws heavy enemy fire, but nothing can stop our heroes now, so they take turns in running to the cellar with their prizes, and Paul is the last with his cakes. Nothing is lost.
The dinner slowly transfers into supper. They even feed a small kitten who wandered into their cellar. At night they all are stricken with diarrhea, but even this cannot spoil their cheerful mood. Three weeks pass in this handmade war paradise and at last, our heroes take a reluctant leave. They take with them a generous food supply, their wonderful bed, their cat and even two red plush armchairs, found in the village.
After several days, Albert and Paul are wounded and land in dressing station. Paul bribes a sergeant-major to be kept together with Albert. They are transferred into a Catholic hospital. Soon Albert’s wound starts hemorrhaging and in the morning his is yellow from blood loss. Amputation awaits him and he threatens to commit suicide.
At last, Paul’s wound heals enough for him to take his leave home. Albert is redirected to a special institution to get his prosthesis. Paul spends his vacation at home, watching his mother being even weaker now.
Chapter 11 begins with Paul’s statement that they had stopped counting weeks. He arrived in winter and now it’s spring again. He ponders about the war as some lethal disease, when everything in life boils down to mere survival. Müller is killed and his boots are now Paul’s; Lt. Bertink is shot while saving his subordinates from soldiers with flame-thrower. One another shot tears away his chin and kills Leer.
The summer of 1918 starts and Paul is keenly aware of his life: there are rumors about the end of war. After several rainy weeks, while on their way for meal, Kat is badly wounded. Paul carries him to dressing station. Upon their arrival Kat is dead: while Paul was struggling to save his life, he received one more wound in his head. This scene is taken from life: Remarque was trying to save his friend in a similar way.
Chapter 12 is the shortest in the novel. Its autumn of 1918 and Paul is the last of his schoolmates at the front. He gets two weeks of rest after swallowing some gas, so now he thinks again about the future. He will face his life alone, without hope and fear.
The narration changes to third person. Last lines inform the reader that Paul Bäumer was found dead in October 1918, a month before armistice. It happened on one of those days when everything was so quiet that military communiques consisted of one phrase only: “All quiet at the Western Front”.
Young and innocent Paul undergoes a tough evolution. He is only eighteen at his arrival at the frontline and the following two years had changed him drastically. Nevertheless, he strives to cling for those few things remaining from his past life and personality – books, family, his home town. By the end all he can think of is survival.
Stanislav “Kat” Katczinsky
A forty-year old former cobbler, he is a kind of a guarding angel for Paul and his schoolmates. Master of scrounge, he manages to find food and comfort everywhere. Kat is a kind of fatherly figure, always ready to offer comfort and calming words; several times Remarque shows him teaching young soldiers the survival basics. Calm, thoughtful and humorous Kat is one of the most prominent characters in Paul’s narration.
“The clearest thinker”, as Paul characterizes him, Albert is one his best friends, faithful and emotional. He is the first to point out their perspective uselessness in future life, but it does not divert him from survival and helping his friends to go on.
A true nemesis of recruits, at first Corporal Himmelstoss seems nearly a caricature. Similar characters can be found in other books of Remarque, so the author is clearly depicting this ominous person from life. Sadistic, overpowered by his new authority, this former postman is a true embodiment of all those commanders who supply rich material for army anecdotes. Paul and his friends manage to withstand Himmelstoss and even have their sweet revenge, when his “striped postman butt <was> shining in the moonlight”, but that does not change Himmestoss’s attitude to other recruits. At last, he makes a mistake and a son of a local magistrate simply reports on him. After that Himmestoss is sent to the front where he meets his former subordinates. They could turn his life into a living hell, but there are other things to be worried about. Later he and Paul’s company end their feud, because Himmelstoss proves himself to be caring and even heroic in a way.
Judging by his books and the manner of narration, Remarque was a rather well-balanced person, but when it comes to Kantorek and his kind, he visibly simmers with rage. Patriotic speeches of Kantorek led Paul and his schoolmates to volunteering. Nobody warned them about the reality of war, and Paul interrupts his narration for pronouncing long monologues about thousands Kantoreks of this world. Speaking about this, he is carefully choosing words, or else he wouldn’t be able to find a single printable word for his former schoolmaster. Remark is so disgusted by Kantorek, who is indirectly guilty in deaths of almost all Paul’s class and Paul himself, that he palpably enjoys the scene of Kantorek’s humiliation at the training camp.
All Quiet at the Western Front is about people who are trying to deal with the war: soldiers, commanders, civilians, prisoners of war, and fugitives.
One of the most prominent themes is the way of adapting to harsh conditions of those men who became soldiers while being very young, like Paul and his schoolmates. They know no other way of life, and all they can do is kill and die.
This book also deals with the issues of physical and spiritual survival.
Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.
Kropp’s bitter humor is his best weapon. This joke is a description of Remarque’s vision of war, where ordinary people are fighting each other and dying for the sake of vague ideals and benefits of their governments.
While they <the pontificating teachers and politicos> continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.
This is an illustration of patriotic speeches vs. reality, one of those themes that Remarque addresses again and again.
But we do not forget. It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces. If it were not so we could not hold out much longer; our humour becomes more bitter every month.
A visible forgetfulness of soldiers is their psychological protective mechanism, and Paul / Remarque tries to explain this to reader. It is also a good warning against trusting the media information blindly.
The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas people who were better off were beside themselves with joy, though they should have been much better able to judge what the consequences would be.
Ordinary people are the ones who suffer most of all, and while they cannot avoid this “misfortune”, all they can do is survive and try to go on.
My limbs move supplely, I feel my joints strong, I breathe the air deeply. The night lives, I live. I feel a hunger, greater than comes from the belly alone.
Paul says this after witnessing the death of Kimmerich. In spite of his mourning for a dead friend, he feels very much alive now, and the described hunger is a natural longing of a young man for life and emotions.
Nature is a symbol of calmness, beauty and promise of future peace. A field of poppies, a beautiful autumn forest, and fluttering butterflies are the images diverting Paul from everything that goes on around. He allows himself these short periods of rest, understanding that anytime he will have to go back to use his skills to kill or he will die himself.
Horses in Chapter 4 represent the symbol of innocence and helplessness felt by the soldiers.
Roots are mentioned throughout the whole novel. Paul often reminds himself and the reader that his generation had no roots in life. This simple symbol is emphasized by the fact that Paul’s last name, Bäumer, is derived from a German word meaning “tree”.
Potato cakes are a wonderful and cozy symbol of home and safety. His father and sister bring them to Paul while visiting him at the training camp and later, when he and his friends are guarding a supply dump, Paul is cooking potato cakes under enemy fire.
The novel was first published from November to December 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung. It was first published in book form in late January 1929 and enjoyed great popularity in the whole world. It was translated into 22 languages just 18 month after its publication.
This book and its sequel, The Road Back (1930), were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany.
All Quiet at the Western Front was adapted into a movie in 1930.The Academy Award for Best Picture followed the same year. It also was a first all-talking non-musical film to win the Best Picture Oscar.
In 1979 the TV version was produced for CBS television.
In 2016 the upcoming of a new movie adaptation was confirmed.
Erich Maria Remarque (1898 – 1970) was a German novelist who created a number of novels dedicated to war and its consequences for those who participate in it. He was called the “recording angel of the Great War”, for his simple and engaging language in which he narrated everything he and his characters experienced, making the depicted events even more horrific by contrast.
Remarque witnessed two world wars and the interbellum period, so almost everything he wrote was written from life, including playing the organ in the church of mental institution, selling textiles and carving tombstones. After being exiled from Germany, he lived in Switzerland but later settled in America and was engaged in filmmaking as a writer. All this and bits of his personal life was embedded in his reach and emotional prose, so his books are all biographical in a sense.