All Quiet on the Western Front is about the German war front during World War I. The story of the battle is narrated by Paul Baumer, a young soldier in the German army. He and his school friends have been urged to enlist in the fighting by Kantorek.
The story is set on the front lines where Baumer and his friends are fighting for survival. When the book opens, one of their mates, Josef Behm, has already been killed. Another of the group, Kemmerich, has had his leg amputated. He never fully recovers from the amputation and soon dies. His leather boots, which were envied by all, pass on to Muller.
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As a result of the tragedies and deaths that they see all around them, Baumer and his friends are completely disillusioned by the war, even though they had all eagerly enlisted. Now they believe that war is a big waste and question whether there is a just cause for the fighting. They have also realized that it is the ordinary people, the little guys not the generals or captains, who actually fight the war and suffers the devastation. They fear for their own lives. One night during basic training, they took out their frustrations by beating up Corporal Himmelstoss, their drillmaster and a true bully.
Of all his soldier friends, Kat is the most resourceful. He is always trying to locate food, find easy jobs, and gather supplies for the group. Baumer thinks of him as his best friend, but even this closeness does not lessen the horror of the war. Baumer’s troop is often bombarded, and Baumer constantly sees death and destruction all around him. He feels relieved in the fall when he and his friends are allowed to leave the front and take a rest in the rear. Baumer is even granted a leave to go home.
When Baumer goes home, he realizes he is a changed man. He feels totally lost when he puts on civilian clothes; he finds he has no interest in the things that previously entertained him. He cannot even relate to his family and resents that everybody in his small hometown acts as if the war were a game or a wonderful thing. He wishes that they understood the true horrors of fighting.
Baumer meets some girls from the enemy camp. He is shocked to realize that they are ordinary young people, with whom he can have a lot of fun. It is the first step in his realization that the enemy is no different than himself. Then one day, when he is alone in a shell hole trying to protect himself, he is joined by Gerald Duval, an enemy soldier. Baumer panics at his presence and stabs him. Regretting his own brutality, he tries to bandage and comfort the young French soldier. As Baumer looks at him, he realizes the wounded enemy is not a nameless face, but an ordinary, scared young person, just like he is. When Duval Dies, Baumer is saddened.
For a period of time, Baumer’s troop has the assignment of guarding a supply depot. He and his friends help themselves to the food and supplies. Then Kropp and Baumer are wounded while evacuating a village. They are sent to the same hospital, where Baumer is horrified at the conditions. Baumer fully recovers from his wounds, but Kropp must have his leg amputated.
By the end of the book, all of Baumer’s soldier friends have died one after the other. Kat is the last one to be lost. When he is hit and killed by a sniper, it comes as a big blow to Baumer. Then one day in the fall of 1918, near the end of the war, Baumer himself dies on the Western Front.
More than fifty years after its jolting prose, haunting poetry, and powerful truths slashed their way into the consciousness of a worldwide readership, All Quiet on the Western Front still stands at the forefront of a host of novels on that most tragic recurrence in history of human experience: war.
Through the observations of Paul Baumer, a 19-year-old volunteer to the German army during World War I, readers taste war in all its horror. Baumer and his classmates charge fresh out of high school into military service, egged on by parents, teachers, and other one-track-minded adults who are unable to foresee or unwilling to consider the hell into which they are cheering their “Iron Youth.”
But war soon transforms Paul and his comrades into “old folk” and “wild beasts.” Thrust into an open-air asylum reeking of sulphur, excreta, and clotting blood, emblazoned by colourful fireworks that kill, teeming with flesh-eating vermin, these battered, weary, famished friends struggle to make sense of their plight, capturing some measure of peace only when they accept the fact that their reality makes no sense, has no reason. For these soldiers, there is no thrill of victory, only the certainty of one onslaught after another. To look to the future brings them no comfort: they envision no careers, no use for their pre-war education, no romance, no life beyond the battlefield. What lies before them is “the abyss.”
War strips away ideals this boy-men once valued. Their respect for authority is eroded by their disillusionment with the schoolteacher Kantorek who pressed them into service–a laughingstock when forced to don a uniform himself–and is shattered by the contemptible tactics their superior officer Himmelstoss perpetrates in the name of discipline. Even their belief in the sanctity of human life must be compromised every time they kill; this is best illustrated by Paul’s journey from anguish to a rationalization of his dispatch of Gerard Duval, the printer turned enemy who leaps into the shell-hole already occupied by Paul.
War destroys these men–even those who survive the bombings, the bullets and bayonets. Yet unless their bodies are annihilated by physical attacks or their sanity exploded by the weight of one too many atrocities, some soldiers manage to maintain vestiges of humanness: their caring for animals (Detering, the farmer turned warrior, rails against the army for its “vilest baseness” in exposing innocent horses to slaughter; the group shares its once-in-a-wartime feast with a little grey cat); compassion for each other (Baumer, little more than a child himself, comforts a terrified, crying recruit and literally covers his behind); their sense of fun (Baumer and Kropp ride high atop a tuck on a canopied, four-poster bed; the Second Company risks their lives amid a shower of explosives for two roast pigs and a platter of potato pancakes); a flair for the romantic (ailing soldiers band together to allow Lewandowski, his wife, and child an intimate reunion in the infirmary); defiance of the near-inevitability of an ugly death (Peter, young and lung-damaged, triumphs over the spectral aura of the Dying Room).
Their hope in a seemingly hopeless situation attests to the endurance of the human spirit. That ghost of a chance that they would return home someday inspires them to think and fight like murderous automatons, to thump along on bleeding stumps where feet used to be until they could reach relative safety from a barrage.
But as the war wears on and the western battlefront soaks up the blood of Kemmerich, then Haie Westhus, then Muller, Paul’s hope ebbs. His trip home on leave whets his appetite for family life, civilian clothes, and a civilian job and at the same time tortures him with the knowledge that should he succeed at fighting his way back home he can no more fit into the life he led at peacetime than he can fit into his old dress suit.
After the deaths or dismemberment of his classmates, other comrades, and finally his most cherished fired Katczinsky, Paul speaks of being “broken, burnt out, rootless.” When, on the eve of the resolution of World War I, Paul’s own end arrives, the expression on his corpse indicates that he has welcomed it.
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