The book All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, tells the story of Paul Baumer, a young German soldier during WWI. This novel was the first of its kind. Instead of romanticizing war, it exposed it for the terrible, bloody and dirty struggle for human survival that it is. The story starts out in the middle of the conflict and continues to almost the end of the war with brief flashbacks to Paul’s youth and his initial drafting into the army. Paul joined the army directly after high school and never really experienced life. Due to his inexperience and lack of knowledge of the world, the war becomes Paul’s life and in the end, his destruction. I think there were three turning points in Paul’s experience of the war which changed his perspective – when he kills a French soldier in close combat when he returns home, and when the war appears to be lost and coming to an end.
Paul is an experienced fighter whose bullets have killed many people but he has never thought philosophically about that fact. He is fighting for a cause he doesn’t really understand but yet he continues to kill and see his friends die. He relates to the war in an “ideal and almost romantic” fashion (ch. 2, pg. 25) Although he has killed so many people I still think he was a very naïve person; someone older who had lived more of his life would probably not have been able to kill without questioning what he was doing. In many ways, a person like Paul is the ideal fighter in a war because once soldiers begin to question what they are doing they become less effective.
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When Paul kills a person up close for the first time he feels a surge of guilt, sadness, and remorse for what has happened. “Three hours… The gurgling starts again—but how slowly a man dies!” (ch. 8 ph. 220) I think these feelings would be similar for someone of any age group who had done a similar thing. However, as a youth, these feelings are quick to fade from Paul’s consciousness and he is able to continue fighting as though nothing has happened. When he returns to the trenches after the killing, his friends who have gone through the same reactions to similar events acknowledge his feelings.
After taking a few day’s leaves and visiting his family, some realizations come to Paul. He finally begins to question was he is doing, even going so far as to acknowledge that if the other soldiers didn’t have guns they might be friends. I think an older person fighting in the war would be more likely to have these types of feelings. Paul notes “for the others, the older men, (the war was) but an interruption . . . (ch.2, pg.23)
The trip home, for a brief moment, gave him the perspective of an older more experienced person, but he soon forgets and is completely immersed in the war again. An effective soldier must not harbour such thoughts because they get in the way of a soldier’s ability to kill his enemies.
Close to the end of the book, Paul states that he can’t understand how he will be able to go home and live a normal life and wonders how his generation will be able to survive. I think at the end of the book he is so jaded and devoid of any feeling or innocence, he thinks it would have been better if he had died than trying to adapt to normal life. In the closing paragraph as a fellow soldier finds Paul lying dead, one of the final victims of the war, “his face had an expression of calm, almost glad the end had come.” (ch.12, pg.256)
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