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Themes of War in All Quiet on the Western Front

The destructiveness of war can be understood on several levels. Primarily, war exposes innocent lives to violence so unforgiving that it leaves physical and mental scarring to the victims for the rest of their existence. War destroys the bonds that soldiers have built with their family, friends and former lives in their pre-enlistment years. War strips all the baggage of life away from the participant, leaving only the raw emotion to be endured by the soldier. Fear, hate, passion, confusion, ecstasy, love, pain, agony, delusion, delirium, aggression and death are the hot and cold impulses felt by the soldiers.

This simple and basic makeup of life for the soldiers makes it too hard to adapt to the complex social nature of traditional life and as such the soldiers become alienated. Although the black and white image of the trenches is so simple in nature, it is complex in detail and soldiers find it hard to communicate to society their experiences for lack of words and language to embellish, and are further alienated from society. This alienation of soldiers through the inability of the English language to express their feelings to people other than their beloved comrades is the destruction described in the novel All Quiet On The Western Front…..

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Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, set in World War I, centres around the changes wrought by the war on one young German soldier, Paul. During his time in the war, Remarque’s protagonist, Paul Baumer, changes from rather innocent youth to a hardened and somewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during the course of this change, Paul alienates himself from the very people who encouraged him to enlist originally. Parents, elders, school and religion had been the foundation of Paul’s young days, he rejects these influences as he discovers that the society he once lived in could not possibly understand the reality of the “Great War”. His new world then, becomes the Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because they are a group which can understand the truth of war without words, simply by experiencing it also. Remarque demonstrates Paul’s alienation from his previous world by emphasizing the language barrier between Paul and his non-war relatives. Paul cannot communicate truthfully with his former life and this eventually leads to the loss of, essentially his soul or life-force. As he becomes alienated from his former, traditional society, Paul becomes able to communicate more effectively with his military comrades on both a spoken and unspoken consensus. The novel is told in the first person and the reader is able to see how the words Paul speaks are different from his true feelings.

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Early in the novel, Paul describes how his elders had been enthusiastic in their efforts to encourage Paul and his mates to enlist. Specifically, teachers and parents had used specific words, passionately at times, to persuade him and his mates to join in the war effort. Paul recounts the tale of a teacher who urged his students to enlist,

“teachers always carry their feelings ready in their
waistcoat pockets, and trot them out by the hour”
(Remarque, I. 13).
“At that time even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward'”
(Remarque, All Quiet I. 13).

Remembering those early days, Paul, as a result of his war experiences, has learned how shallow these words were.

“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. 14)

What Paul has learnt is that he went to the war for the same reasons as those for which society encouraged him to go, but these did not reflect the reality of war and his place in it.

As the novel progresses, Paul himself uses words in a similarly false fashion. An important episode in the novel is a period of leave when he visits his hometown. This leave confirms for Paul that he cannot communicate with the people on the home front because of his war experience and their limited, understanding of the war. When he first enters his house, Paul is overwhelmed at being home, his joy and relief are so great that he cannot speak, only weep, but when he and his mother greet each other, he realizes immediately that he has nothing to say to her, their previously close relationship means nothing.

“We say very little and I am thankful that she asks nothing”
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 106).

Paul’s reluctance to communicate to his mother is a new experience to him, he does not know what he is afraid of, but finally she answers his thoughts by asking,

“‘Was it very bad out there, Paul?'”
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 107)

Here, when he answers, he lies. For many, lying to one’s parent is a common sin, but for Paul, it represents new territory where their friendship has a barrier between them, placed to protect her from hearing of the chaotic conditions from which he has just returned.
To himself;

“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 isn’t so bad.’”
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 107-108)

The repeated word, never, was to be the most frightening part of the novel. Paul subconsciously acknowledges his eternal separation from his normal life, only to endure the internal agony alone and afraid. This simple, innocent, possibly good-intentioned lie creates a separation between his mother and himself. The war’s destructive path moves from the front line.

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The final tragic alienation of Paul occurs when he is alone in his old room. After being unsuccessful in communicating with his mother, Paul attempts to make peace with himself by losing himself to the intrigue of life he once had as a young person. Here, among his mementos, the pictures and postcards on the wall, Paul waits for something that will allow him to feel a part of his youthful world. It is his old schoolbooks that symbolize that older, more contemplative, less military world and which Paul hopes will bring him back to his former 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 coloured 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. 114)

The sign does not come, the room itself, and his entire former self becomes alien to him.

“A sudden feeling of foreignness suddenly rises in me. I cannot find my way back”
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 115).

Paul is lost to the primitive, military, world of the war. Ultimately, the books are worthless because their language is unable to convey his personal war experience.

“Words, Words, Words-they do not reach me. Slowly I place the books back in the shelves. Nevermore”
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 115).

The same barrier that Paul placed between him and his mother is placed between him and his former self, “NEVERMORE”, he emphasizes, and seeds of doubt grow in Paul’s mind and his desire to live is questioned.

Contrasted with Paul’s experiences during his visit home are his mutual relationships with his fellow trench soldiers. Paul is able to communicate in both a verbal and spiritual manner, with his fellow trench soldiers. During a patrol, Paul becomes pinned down in a shell hole, he becomes disoriented and suffers a panic attack.

“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. 139)

He hears familiar voices and realizes that he is close to his comrades in his own trench.

“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. 140)

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The words of his comrades have more meaning than even they are aware of. This true communication can exist in the world of the war with few or no words were spoken.

The experience in chapter 9, where Paul has to kill with his own hands is the beginning of the end for Paul’s sanity. War has destroyed Paul’s ability to think clearly and he reverts to his ways of the past. Paul struggles with the language he has decided is inadequate to say what he wishes to express. Paul’s realization that the enemy is not a machine but a person, a personality, he struggles to cope with the situation and only regains his composure when he is reunited with his comrades.

“Today you, tomorrow me” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 148).

“After all, war is war” (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 151). Essentially that is all that the reader is left with: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot even be discussed with any accuracy. It has no sense and lacks any kind of meaning. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque shows the destruction created by the war. This destruction affects the victims physically, but more irreversibly, mentally and emotionally. The war is so thorough that it destroys the basic rights, not the least of which is verbal, of being human. By showing how the First World War destroys the basis of life, love, expression and language, Remarque is able to demonstrate how the war irreparably alters the world itself.

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