All Quiet on the Western Front

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All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Erich Maria Remarque


Published in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front masterfully depicts the horror of war. Erich Maria Remarque based the book on his own experience as a young infantryman in the German army during World War I, and was partially influenced by Henri Barbusse's "Le Feu Journal d'une Escouade," (1916) a war novel published while the war was still being fought. His avowed purpose in writing the novel was "to report on a generation that was destroyed by the war—even when it escaped the shells." More than a million copies of the book were sold in Germany the first year it appeared, followed by millions more when translated and distributed in the other nations. However, Nazi Germany took away Remarque's citizenship in 1938. Later on, he became a citizen of Switzerland and the United States. Though Remarque published ten novels and various screenplays, he was known primarily as the author of this novel.

The story is about a lost generation, as seen through the eyes of Paul Bäumer, a nineteen-year-old German volunteer, during the last two years of World War I. The book alternates between periods at the Western front and peaceful interludes, horrifying battles and scenes of young comrades passing time together, episodes in the field hospital and at home on furlough. Fresh out of high school, Paul and his classmates idealistically enter military service, but the realities of war soon transform Paul and his comrades into "old folk" and "wild beasts." War destroys these men: their hope in a seemingly hopeless situation attests to the endurance of the human spirit.

In his vivid chronicling of the infantryman's view of the German experience in this century, the book found a major audience in non-German readers; Remarque's episodic style and use of both the first person and present tense endowed the novel, published in German as Im Westen nichts Neues, with an eyewitness authenticity and added to its enduring appeal.

Author Biography

Erich Maria Remarque is considered one of the most significant war novelists in contemporary literature. In his works, he displayed his concern for the physical and spiritual effects of the First World War on a generation in Germany. Born in Osnabruck, Germany on June 22, 1908, Remarque came from a poor family; his father, Peter Franz Remark, was a bookbinder who supported Erich, his mother Anna Maria, and two sisters. The writer took the name of his mother and the spelling of his family name, Remarque, from his French ancestors. At school, he clashed with authorities (whom he later criticized in his character Kantorek). Remarque began writing at sixteen years of age and published his essays, poems, and an early novel later in Die Traumbude or "The Dream Room." (1920) Though he began training as an elementary school teacher at the University of Munster, he was unable to finish, since he was drafted at the age of nineteen into the German army to serve on the Western front. Wounded five times, Remarque, like his protagonist, Paul Bäumer, swallowed poison gas and sustained injury to his lungs. Both visited their mother, to whom they were close, during leave. The similarity ends there, of course, since Baumer makes the ultimate sacrifice. However, shortly after Remarque returned home from duty, his mother passed away in September, 1917.

Only months earlier, Remarque participated in the Battle of Flanders against the British. While carrying a wounded comrade back from the attack, he suffered shrapnel wounds that sent him to a hospital in Germany. He spent most of the war recuperating, writing music, and working on Die Traumbude. After his discharge in 1918, he suffered postwar trauma and disillusionment, complicated by regret that his wounds ended his hopes for a career as a concert pianist as well as by grief over his mother's death. He worked in a variety of positions ranging from an itinerant peddler and organist in an insane asylum to an advertising copywriter. He then moved to Berlin in 1925, where he wrote about car races in and edited the magazine Sport im Bild while continuing to write fiction. Remarque married a dancer, Jutta Zambona. Drawn to local social events, he developed a reputation for high living.

Im Westen nichts Neues (literally "In the West, nothing new"), his first and most famous work of fiction, was written in five weeks in 1927. Following serial publication in a magazine, the book was published in January 1929. The publishers were initially skeptical of the postwar reaction to the book, wondering if readers were still interested in World War I. However, a half million copies were sold in Germany within three months. After eighteen months, the worldwide sales totalled three-and-a-half million copies.

With achieving fame and fortune, Remarque began to live an upscale lifestyle. He bought a Lancia convertible and moved to Casa Remarque in Porto Ronco, on Switzerland's Lake Maggiore. He ended his marriage but still lived with his wife. Though he lived among priceless paintings and antique Egyptian artifacts, Remarque was unable to avoid the hatred against him by a new force in his native country. In 1933, the National Socialist Party came to power in Germany. Hitler's propagandist, Josef Goebbels, plotted to punish the writer for his anti-war sentiments. In the Obernplatz, facing Berlin's opera house, Goebbels burned Remarque's book and the film that was based on it along with books by Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Maxim Gorki, Bertolt Brecht, and Albert Einstein. Shortly before Hitler invaded Poland, Remarque fled the Gestapo by escaping through France and sailing to America on the Queen Mary. Unfortunately, his sister was murdered by the Nazis, for which he felt personally guilty for the rest of his life.

When Remarque arrived in New York, he was a literary star. Along with other writers in self-imposed exile, he continued to write about the war, worked for various movie studios, and settled in a colony of German expatriates in west Los Angeles until 1942. Remarque became a U.S. citizen in 1947 and married actress Paulette Goddard in 1958. After 1960, he spent more and more time in Italy and returned less often to the U.S. He was awarded the Great Order of Merit of Germany. He wrote ten books after his best seller, but none of them received the acclaim of All Quiet. A sequel, The Road Back, recounts the collapse of the German army and the efforts of returning soldiers to adjust to civilian life.

Remarque died of a heart attack on Sept. 24, 1970 in Locarno, Switzerland. In Germany, he was described as a successful writer of pulp love stories and popular thrillers but was recognized abroad as the chronicler of German destiny from 1914 through 1945. Above all, he was lauded as the writer of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Plot Summary

Part I—Behind the Lines

All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a young German foot soldier, Paul Bäumer, during the waning days of the First World War. Since Paul narrates his story—which consists of a series of short episodes—in the first person and in present tense, the novel has the feel of a diary, with entries on everyday life interspersed with horrifying battle episodes.

We find that Paul joined the army with his classmates Muller, Kropp, and Leer at the urging of their schoolmaster. In the first section, Paul also introduces his friends Tjaden, Westhus, and Katczinski, called Kat. At forty, Kat is the oldest of the soldiers and is skilled in the practicalities of life. As the book opens, the solders concern themselves with food, cigarettes and thoughts of home.

While resting, Bäumer and his friends decide to visit Kemmerich, a wounded comrade, at the field hospital. They discover that he has had his leg amputated and that he is dying. Although they are concerned with Kemmerich's pain, they are more concerned with what will become of his boots. Müller, in particular, covets the soft leather. Paul explains to the reader that Muller would go to any lengths to save a comrade's life; but it is clear that Kemmerich will die and "good boots are scarce."

Frequently during the rest period, Paul's thoughts turn back to his days at school and to the lofty, philosophical ideals he and his classmates learned. However, nothing that he learned in school or in basic training have prepared him for life at the front. He attributes his survival not to his education, but to pure animal instinct. Paul contrasts his former life to the harsh, emotion-numbing conditions he now endures.

When the soldiers' rest comes to an end, they are sent to the front on wiring detail. Their job is to string barbed wire along the German lines. Paul and Kat are caught in a large battle. In graphic detail, Paul describes the trenches, the shelling, the screams of wounded horses and men, the poison gas attack, and the rain that drenches everything.

After a brief respite behind the lines during which the soldiers eat roast goose, smoke cigars, and talk of what they will do after the war, the men return to the front. This time they are sent up two days earlier than usual due to the rumor of a large offensive. In the trenches, morale is low and becomes lower as German shells fall on their own lines. Paul describes the tension and the horror of a major battle, with the confusion, the noise, and death turning the soldiers into numbed, unthinking machines.

Part II—On Leave

After the battle, Paul receives leave to visit home. His friends Kropp and Kat see him off, and Paul starts his journey. As he travels by train, he looks at the landscape, at once so normal and, at the same time, so changed.

At home, he finds his sister cooking and his mother ill with cancer. For the first time, Paul dissolves into tears as his emotions overwhelm him. Even when he recovers and is able to speak, he finds that he is unable to answer his family's questions about his experiences at the front.

Throughout his leave, Paul finds himself unable to get along with his family and friends. His father takes him to a pub and urges Paul to share detailed descriptions of the fighting with the older men there. Paul cannot do this. In addition, the noises of everyday life startle and frighten him. When he visits his old room at home, he feels a gulf open between himself and the person he was before the leave.

In the final scene of his leave, Paul bids farewell to his mother. Both know they will never see each other again. Later the same night, as Paul lies in his bed, he knows he should never have come home. "Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless," he thinks, knowing he will never be so again. "I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is comfortless and without an end."

Part III—The Return to the Front

After Paul's return to the front, he feels himself more strongly attached to his friends than ever. They alone can understand what he has endured. Consequently, he volunteers to go on a patrol with them. Separated from the others in the dark, Paul finds himself suddenly paralyzed with fear as another battle begins. He throws himself into a shell crater for protection. Almost immediately, a French soldier jumps in on top of him. Paul stabs the Frenchman and then spends the rest of the night and the whole next day watching him die slowly and in great pain. It is the first time Paul has killed with his hands, and the man's dying is excruciating for Paul to witness. He tries to help his victim, but to no avail. Remorse fills Paul and he thinks of the man's wife and life at home. Eventually, Kropp and Kat find Paul and rescue him.

The men are next assigned to guard a deserted town where they loot houses and have a grand feast. However, as they leave the village, both Kropp and Paul are wounded.

In the subsequent weeks in the hospital, Kropp's leg is amputated and Paul's wounds heal. Eventually, Kropp is sent home, and Paul returns to the front. It is now 1918, and the days blend together in bombardment, death, and defeat. The German troops, tired and hungry, lose ground daily to the fresh American troops. Paul and Kat are the last two alive of the original group; and then the day comes when Kat is wounded. As Paul carries Kat to look for medical help, a shell fragment hits the older man in the skull, instantly killing him. Paul is alone.

Part IV—Conclusion

It is now the autumn of 1918. The war is winding down and Paul, recovering from a gas attack, knows that the armistice will come soon and that he will go home. He reflects on what it means to go home, not only for himself, but for all of those of his generation:

Had we returned home in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experience we might have unleashed a storm. Now if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. We will not be able to find our way any more.

And men will not understand us—for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten—and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered,—the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.…

I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear.

These are Paul's last thoughts. The book shifts abruptly and the next page opens with a new narrator who takes over the story for the final two paragraphs. It is this voice that tells us of Paul Bäumer's death in October of 1918, on a "day that was so quiet and still on the whole front that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front."


Paul Bäumer

The sensitive twenty-year-old narrator (he has written poems and a play called "Saul") reaches manhood through three years of service as a soldier in the second company of the German army during World War I. His loss of innocence during the cataclysm is the focus of the author's anti-war sentiment. If one views this book as a roman a clef (a thinly veiled autobiographical novel), he is telling the basic story of Erich Maria Remarque. Although he feels cut off and alienated from past values two years after the war begins, Paul is compassionate to his dying friends. In camaraderie, the author suggests, is salvation. One by one, Paul sees his comrades die; he also stabs a French soldier, a death that torments him profoundly. He is killed by a stray bullet just before the declaration of the armistice. Critics differ on the degree to which Bäumer is Remarque, but the general consensus is that Paul Bäumer is foremost a fictional creation who recounts a story that evokes the absurdity of war.

Lt. Bertinck

He is the company commander and is regarded as a magnificent front-line officer. His heroism is shown through his knocking out an advancing flame thrower.


He is a peasant from Oldenburg, who worries about his wife alone in their farm. He grows particularly nostalgic when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, and he hates to hear the horses bellowing in agony. After he deserts, he is captured and never heard from again. As in the case of most of the characters in the novel, he is another example of someone without a future who simply exists in a meaningless world.

Gérard Duval

Lying in a shell hole during a bombardment, Paul suddenly finds the French soldier Gérard Duval on top of him. Instinctively Paul kills Duval, a typesetter in civilian life, by knifing him to death. The soldier's demise is slow and painful, and, overcome by guilt, Paul tries to ease his suffering. After the Frenchman dies, he searches his wallet for an address and finds letters and pictures of his wife and child.


The patriotic schoolteacher, who instructs Paul and his twenty classmates to sign up for military duty, typifies the many such teachers in Germany during World War I. While their idealism was sincere, it was also misguided. Paul expresses his rage at Kantorek's unrealistic view of war that proved dangerous and fatal to most of his class, the "Iron Youth," as Kantorek calls them. Instead, Paul wishes that Kantorek had guided them to a life of maturity and constructive actions. As a member of the local reserves, he is a poor soldier.


See Stanislaus Katczinsky.

Stanislaus Katczinsky

Nicknamed "Kat," Katczinsky is one of the main characters of the novel. A forty-year-old reservist, he is an experienced man who is unselfish to his fellow soldiers and also seems to have a sixth sense for food, danger, and soft jobs. Kat serves as a tutor and father figure to Paul and the others, who depend on him for humor. He eases their minds during the bombardment.

Franz Kemmerich

A childhood friend of Paul Bäumer, Kemmerich longs to be a forester. Unfortunately, his dreams are dashed by the war, where he undergoes a leg amputation and then dies. He is Paul's first eyewitness experience with personal loss.

Albert Kropp

Kropp is the best student in Paul's class and joins him in rebelling against Himmelstoss. When he has to have part of his leg amputated, he threatens to kill himself. Eventually, with the help of his comrades, he resigns himself to his new condition and accepts an artificial limb.

Media Adaptations

  • All Quiet on the Western Front was adapted as a film in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, who won an Academy Award for his direction. The movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year despite controversy in both the United States and Germany, starred Lew Ayres, John Wray, and Louis Wolheim and is available from MCA/Universal Home Video.
  • The film was remade into a television movie in 1979. Directed by Delbert Mann and produced by Norman Rosemont, it starred Richard Thomas, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine, and Patricia Neal and is available from CBS/Fox Video.
  • A recording was produced by Prince Frederick, with Frank Muller narrating, 1994, five cassettes.


Müller is a young soldier who continues to study physics and think of exams during the war. He inherits Kemmerich's soft airman's boots; as he lies dying with an agonizing stomach wound, he wills the boots to Paul.

Paul's mother

She is a self-sacrificing and long-suffering woman who tries to give Paul what he needs, including potato cakes, whortleberry jam, and warm woolen underpants. His last night at home on leave, she sits by his bedside to express her concerns for his welfare. She later receives treatment for cancer at a charity ward in Luisa Hospital.


Tiedjen is a soldier with whom Paul serves. When he is hit, he cries out for his mother and holds off a doctor with a dagger before collapsing. Paul describes this experience as his "most disturbing and hardest parting" until the one he experiences with Franz Kemmerich.


He is a thin, nineteen-year-old soldier with an immense appetite. A former locksmith, he is unable to prevent himself from bed-wetting and is criticized by Himmelstoss. When Himmelstoss is ambushed by some of the soldiers and given a whipping as a comeuppance, Tjaden is the first to whip him.

Haie Westhus

Haie prefers military service to his civilian job as a peat digger. Hoping to become a village policeman, he dies at nineteen from a back wound.


Individual vs. Machine

The patriotism of war is a thing of the past, Remarque suggests, as the young recruits quickly learn about the reality of trench warfare. Paul Bäumer, fresh from Bäumerchool at the beginning of the novel, is sent after skimpy but brutal basic training to the trenches in France. He quickly learns that living or dying has little to do with one's prowess as a soldier but more as a conditioned reflex. Since the Allies outgunned the Axis in artillery and machinery, the German youth took refuge in trenches that were no match for the kind of warfare waged. As more and more of his comrades are killed, Bäumer sees that death comes from afar in the artillery shells and the bombs, and as the trenches offer less and less refuge from the other side's new tanks and airplanes and its better guns, survival becomes little more than a chance.

Thus, the theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the individual's struggle against forces beyond his control: technology, institutions, politics, social conventions, disease, and death. The soldiers become automata, trying to avoid death more than actually fighting. Rapid changes of scene take the reader to the front—sheltering from shell-fire in a cemetery, under gas attack, behind the lines—on leave to a Germany that cannot conceive of life at the front, into contact with Russian POWs, and to the hospital, where the consequences of war are among the severest and clearest. The increasingly condensed final chapters show the young German troops defeated in the field, clearly unable to win in the face of livelier and better fed Allied troops, and Bäumer dies before the actual armistice. His death in the end, the author seems to say, is not even worth reporting.

The atmosphere of death, the callousness of Müller's request for Kenneth's boots, the theft of his watch, and the eagerness of a soldier to exchange cigarettes for morphine to aid a dying soldier add to the theme of the absurdity of modern existence, where man is forced to combat impersonal mechanistic forces.


The one element that retains its positive value in the novel is friendship between the comrades. A difference in generation developed, and ties between the young soldiers solidified. Carl Zuckmayer, a playwright and friend of Remarque, writes in A Part of Myself "The heroic gestures of the volunteers was barred to Erich Maria Remarque and his age group; they had to sweat out their normal time in school and then be unwillingly drafted, drilled, and harassed, and they went into the field without illusions, for they had some inkling of the horrors that awaited them there. For us the brief training period was a strenuous but also an amusing transition, a great joke, much as if we were playing parts in a highly realistic military comedy."

Alienation and Loneliness

Paul retreats from civilian life into the isolated world of the soldier. Following his leave, he grieves over his second departure to the front, which separates him from his mother. He is sad to lose his friends. In the same vein, the wistful, elegiac mood persists in the novel in the allusions to the lost generation. Paul accepts the fact that his generation is burned out and emotionally stifled. During his guard duty, he sees men scurry in terror in a rat-infested trench as they hide next to cadavers of their comrades. Chapter 12, the last, is a compelling existential cry of abandonment. Paul perceives his generation as "weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope." Against a red rowan tree, he sees nature through new, objective eyes. "I am so alone," he concludes, lacking a will to live.

When Bäumer returns home on leave, he is unable to identify with memories of his youth nor understand the patriotic enthusiasm of the older generation. The lost generation essentially includes the students whose youth is cut short and ruined by war.

Topics for Further Study

  • Compare the soldier's viewpoint in The Red Badge of Courage with All Quiet on the Western Front. Examine the similarities and differences of battle in the Civil War and World War I. Compare as well the quality of camaraderie, as presented by Stephen Crane and Erich Maria Remarque.
  • Analyze the historical events of World War I in relation to Paul Baümer's personal history, and how his life reflects the changes taking place around him: the military force of Germany, its bravado and destruction, the tyranny of schoolteachers and other influential adults, and the insanity of modern warfare.
  • Explain why Remarque expressed pity for the post-World War I "lost generation."


Point of View

Remarque has been praised for the simple, direct language of his war novels in contrast to their often violent subject matter; he is also acknowledged for his ability to create moving, realistic characters and situations. His prose style is punctuated with fragmented narrative passages that mirror Paul's often disoriented state of mind. The plot moves in a "bildungsroman" format, demonstrating a young man's personal development. There are impressionist details that move in tableau fashion. Remarque's choice of a first-person narrator does, however, create one possible problem: the two concluding paragraphs have to stem from a new, apparently omniscient third-person narrator whose intervention is needed after the death of the first-person narrator. The story does not suffer from this change of viewpoint or from the absence of any explanation of the mechanics by which it came to be set down.

The narrative stance provides Remarque with a realistic context for a naive and simple style, which is part of the novel's popular appeal, as well as a fragmented, uncoordinated syntax and use of the present tense, a form that reflects immediacy; these features thus became part of the famous 'frog's eye view' of the war. He is able to comment on events through Paul Bäumer himself—and through him of the other characters—without the need to provide an omniscient narrative perspective: indeed with a requirement not to do so. Style and point of view are matched, and both reflect the incomprehensibility of war.


Narrative viewpoint and the focus on the central character are also closely linked with structure. The work is divided into small sections, separated by asterisks. This feature makes it easier to read but it also makes for a realistic effect—that of a journal entry or a brief conversation. The novel operates structurally, in fact, on an alternation between the cruelty and despair of the battle scenes, and a gradual return to life during periods in reserve. The book is divided into short episodes and has a heavy reliance on conversation, characteristic of Remarque's style in general.

Description alternates with speculative passages by Bäumer, and there are inconclusive discussions on the futility of the whole war. There are no historical details, certainly no heroics, and not even a real enemy except death, although Bäumer is forced to kill an equally terrified Frenchman.


Though the novel is set during World War I, in the northern Belgian border between Langemark and Bixschoote, Flanders, Remarque does not really present the conflict of a war between the Germans and Allied forces. The battles are almost never identified and dates are rarely given; he writes of "the troops over there" more often than he does of specific nationalities, for they are not the real enemy. Speaking in a foxhole in no-man's land to the Frenchman he has killed, Paul blames the carnage on the desire for profit and on "national interest" as defined by authorities and institutions on both sides.


The symbols in the novel are mundane yet striking: for example, the soldiers' boots, which pass from one man to the next as each man dies violently; and potato cakes, which represent home and comfort to Paul. Indeed, the boots pass from Kemmerich to Müller to Tjaden to Paul (and thus foreshadow his death). For Bäumer, the trenches represent the antithesis of the fragile, gentle, and ever-present beauty of nature, the "lost world of beauty." On the other hand, nature, in the form of butterflies and poplar trees, provides Paul with a reminder of innocence and peace.

Remarque also employs personification—endowing inanimate objects with human qualities—to describe the wind (playing with the soldiers' hair), and the darkness that blackens the night with giant strides. An example of his use of simile is his description of a man collapsing like a rotten tree. Apostrophes like "Ah, mother, mother! You still think I am a child—why can I not put my head in your lap and weep?" evoke the epic tragedies of ancient Greece.

Historical Context

World War I

Named for its complex involvement of countries from Northern Europe to Africa, western Asia, and the U.S., World War I, called the Great War, was ignited by a single episode. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. As the Austrian government plotted a suitable retribution against the Serbs, the effect on Russia was taken into consideration. Because Russia was closely allied with Serbia, Austrian officials worried that the slightest aggression against the Serbs would result in Russian involvement. As a precaution, Austria sought support from Germany, its most powerful ally. Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately vouched for Germany's assistance, telling the Austrian powers that his nation would support whatever action the Austrian government might take.

On July 23, 1914, the Austrian empire presented an ultimatum to the Serbs, demanding that they suppress Serbian nationalist activity by punishing activists, prosecuting terrorists, squashing anti-Austrian propaganda, and even allowing Austrian officials to intrude into Serbian military affairs. Two hours before the expiration of the fortyeight hour deadline on the ultimatum, Serbia responded. However, its response fell short of complete acceptance of the terms and so was rejected by the Austrian authorities. As war between Austria and Serbia loomed on the horizon, both sides experienced a massive groundswell of optimism and patriotism regarding the impending conflict.

The Austrians declared war on Serbia and began shelling Serbian defenses. As these aggressions began, the Russian army started mobilizing to aid the Serbs, and it was soon clear that Russia was going to become involved in the war. Two days later, the German army began to mobilize and entered the war to support Austria. Germany was jubilant about the prospect of war and believed that its entrance into the conflict was perfectly justified. Kaiser Wilhelm II stated: "A fateful hour has fallen upon Germany. Envious people on all sides are compelling us to resort to a just defense … war will demand enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure but we shall show our foes what it means to provoke Germany."

Germany began a heavy assault on France, an ally of the Russians. To facilitate this assault, the German troops marched through Belgium. Great Britain, Belgium's ally, sent an ultimatum to the German army to withdraw from Belgian soil. When the ultimatum went unanswered, Britain entered the war, which had already included Czechs, Poles, Rumanians, Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Arabs, and eventually the Italians and Turks. Germany faced Russian, French, and British enemies, who outnumbered their army 10 million to 6 million.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: In the world of finance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits 381. A period of general prosperity for the country (except for the farmer), the government adopts a "laissez-faire" attitude towards big business. This policy ends with the collapse of the economy following October 29, 1929, the stock market crash, when $30 billion disappears, a sum equal to what the war cost America.

    Today: The Dow Jones Industrial Average reaches 7,000, as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan keeps a steady watch on the burgeoning economy and cautions investors of the ever-present possibility of high inflation and interest rates that could adversely affect the market. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Banking Acts established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Administration set the precedent for improved vigilance in the stock market.

  • 1920s: The German dirigible, Graf Zeppelin, arrives October 15, 1992 after covering 1630 miles in 121 hours on its first commercial flight. The voyage from Friedrickshafen inaugurates transatlantic service by aircraft. The balloon-like airship, the zeppelin, is used in World War I to move silently over enemy territory and drop bombs.

    Today: The Concorde enables passengers to fly twice the speed of sound between Paris and New York in three and a half hours. Developed by Col. John Boyd, a legendary U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, the F16, used in the Persian Gulf War, has the capability to change course more quickly and climb faster than any war plane before, thus revolutionizing military strategy.

  • 1920s: The Three Penny Opera opens at Berlin's Theatre. Starring Lotte Lenya as Jenny, the show includes music by Lenya's husband Kurt Weill. The libretto is by Bertolt Brecht, who transposed the "Beggar's Opera" of 1728 into the idiomof Germany's Weimar Republic.

    Today: Cabaret, the hit musical starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, based on Christopher Isherwood's "I am a Camera," records the story of an Englishman's initiation into the decadent, club scene of 1920s Berlin. The musical, which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City on Nov. 20, 1966, ran for 1,165 performances, and inspired an award-winning Hollywood film.

  • 1920s: The Leica introduced by E. Leitz G. m.b.H. of Wetzlar, Germany, is a revolutionary miniature 35 millimeter camera invented by Oskar Bernack. It takes a thirty-six-frame film roll and has a lens that can be closed down to take pictures with great depth of field or opened for dim lighting conditions, fast and slow shutter speeds, and interchangeable lenses that permit close-ups and telephotography.

    Today: Ken Perlin, a New York University professor, discovers a technique in computer science that makes computer-generated images look natural, as, for example, the roughing up of dinosaurs' skin in the film "Jurassic Park."

War in the Trenches

As Germany engaged the French and British armies in the West, it became clear that a decisive victory was not an immediate possibility. Both sides in the conflict settled themselves into trenches and dugouts in preparation for a war of attrition. New weapons such as the machine gun and more efficient artillery made the trenches a necessity. Soldiers on open ground would be decimated by the newfangled instruments of death. Opposing trenches were typically several hundred yards apart. The middle ground, which was laced with barbed wire, soon became known as "no-man's land." Constant firefights and artillery barrages removed all foliage from this area and made it nearly impossible to cross. Daring raids across this deadly no-man's land became one of the chief pursuits of infantrymen in the trenches. During these raids, soldiers would cross the treacherous ground, penetrating enemy barbed wire either with well-placed artillery attacks or with special rifle attachments that gathered several strands of wire together and the fired a bullet, severing them. Upon reaching the enemy lines, soldiers would first throw a volley of hand grenades into the trenches and then attack the surprised defenders with bayonets. While these raids did not typically result in major casualties to defenders, they devastated enemy morale and bolstered the confidence of the attackers. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Bäumer participates in such a raid. Caught in a no-man's land by shellfire, Bäumer takes shelter in a shallow hole. When a French soldier also seeks shelter there, Bäumer stabs him and feels tormented by guilt as he watches the young man die. This scene especially illustrates the traumatic nature of the raids.

The Western Front

The Western front was a 475-mile-long battle line between the Germans and the Allied forces. Along this line of fighting were 900,000 German troops and 1.2 million Allied soldiers, or roughly 1,900 and 2,500 men per mile of front. Overall, the western front was not a continuous trench, but rather a string of unconnected trenches and fortifications.

The round of duty along the Western front differed little for soldier on either side of the conflict. Most of the night would be spent at hard labor, repairing the trench wall, laying barbed wire, and packing sandbags. After the dawn stand-to, when every man would line up on the firing step against the possibility of a morning attack, the rest of the day would generally be spent in sleep or idleness, occasionally interrupted by sentry duty or another stand-to when enemy activity was suspected. Despite the sometimes lengthy periods of calm along the front, life in the trenches was filled with constant dangers. In addition to artillery attacks and surprise raids, soldiers suffered afflictions brought on by a daily existence in wet and unsanitary conditions. The lack of fresh foods and soggy environment in the trenches resulted in "trench foot," an affliction that turned the feet green, swollen, and painful. Another ailment suffered by soldiers in the trenches was the debilitating, though not fatal, trench fever, transmitted by the lice that infested everyone after a day or two in the line. Bäumer and his comrades in the novel take several trips to the delousing stations during their service on the front.

The Human Cost of the War

On the Allies side, the total casualties suffered were as follows: Russia, 9,150,000; England, 3,190,235; France, 6,160,000; Italy, 2,197,000; the U.S., 323,018, and Serbia, 331,106. On the Axis side, Germany lost 7,142,558; and Austria-Hungary, 7,020,000.

The Influence of the Older Generation

Central to Remarque's novel is the attack on members of Germany's older generation for imposing their false ideals of war on their children. The older generation's notions of a patriotism and their assumptions that war was indeed a valorous pursuit played a crucial role in the conflict. The chief sources of this pro-war ideology were the older men of the nation: professor, publicists, politicians, and even pastors. As the war began, these figures intensified the rhetoric, providing all the right reasons why killing the young men of France and Britain was a worthy endeavor. One Protestant clergyman spoke of the war as "the magnificent preserver and rejuvenator." Government authorities in Germany did everything in their power to try and get the young men to enlist, even granting students special dispensation to complete final exams early so as to be able to join up sooner. As the war broke out, more than a million young men volunteered for service.

In his book, Remarque uses the character of the schoolteacher Kantorek to develop the novel's attack against the older generation. Kantorek's persistent encouragement of the young men to enlist prompted Bäumer's entire class to volunteer for service. With each successive death of Bäumer's classmates, the novel further condemns the attitudes and influences of the older generation. Bäumer himself denounces the pressure they exerted. "For us lads of eighteen," he observes, "they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress—to the future."

Critical Overview

When Erich Maria Remarque published his first novel serially in Berlin's magazine Vossische Zeitung (November 10 to December 9, 1928), he immediately aroused interest. Politically, he was considered a rather courageous new writer who dared to question the mechanical militaristic tendencies of the German state, and, artistically, he possessed a facility in written expression that used various rhetorical devices in an impressionistic mode. In short, he could not be perceived by his reading public as a run-of-the-mill war novel romantic. The work appeared the next year in English and sold a million and a half copies that same year and in time was translated into twenty-nine languages.

Initially, the book was enthusiastically received by critics for its realistic presentation of the war and what it meant to the average soldier. Joseph Wood Krutch of Nation centered his commentary on Remarque, noting that the author spoke from experience and that he avoided rhetoric (artificial eloquence in speech or writing) and analysis in favor of a simplicity so devastating "as to make the unspeakable commonplace." Favorable reviews also came from such luminaries as William Faulkner, Maxwell Geismar, and Bernard DeVoto. Louis Kronenberger, commenting in the New York Times Book Review, called the soldier's experience a kind of "Everyman's pilgrimage," a compressed and intensive coming-of-age story.

Clearly, Remarque's journalistic training contributed to the popular appeal of All Quiet on the Western Front. According to Brian A. Rowley, the book's "particular blend of suffering, sensuality and sentiment suggests that Remarque had gauged public taste. The horror and degradation of war is represented, but it is shown with irony, wit, and even humor." Remarque's command of "a clear but lively, indeed pungent, style," says the critic, "owe something to journalism."

On the other hand, contemporary critics of Remarque faulted his work for its first-person narrative style, sensationalism, and distortion. His work was also parodied. Yet the historical nature of this criticism reflects the fact that the work is not a piece of historical documentation from 1917, but a novel written in 1928. Remarque's preface is telling in this case. While it declares the novel to be a report on the generation destroyed by the war (whether or not they survived physically), the bulk of the preface portrays the war through the eyes of a sensitive and literary young man.

Eventually, All Quiet on the Western Front was attacked by certain factions in Europe, censored by the Nazis, and publicly burned by their regime in 1933 for its pacifist denunciation of the war. Remarque was accused of being a Marxist sympathizer, who besmirched the memory of heroes killed on the World War I battlefields. In 1938, Nazi Germany deprived Remarque of German citizenship. While he received hefty royalties, he received few honors, since a percentage of the German population continued to perceive his novel as denigrating German militarism.

Later twentieth-century criticism carries with it the perspective of greater cataclysms—World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War—and the advent of more horrific and powerful weapons, including the atom bomb, biological warfare, and computerized missiles. Rowley views Remarque's novel as a gradual "alienation from any world but that of war … the sterility of [Bäumer's] leave." Biographers Christine R. Barker and R.W. Last note that "Remarque succeeded in transcending his own personal situation; he touched on a nerve of his time, reflecting the experiences of a whole generation of young men on whom the war had left an indelible mark." Modris Eksteins observes that the book merged with the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) of 1929, when "war survivors searched for answers to their inmost disquietude." From a structural point of view, critics classify the book as a roman a clef (a thinly veiled autobiographical story), a stationroman (a book that centers on themes, without a plot), and a bildungsroman (the personal growth of the main character). German critic Hans Wagener finds that any reading of the novel requires an understanding of the time in which it was written and when it took place, and, as most critics concur, consider the book to be simply one of the best, if not the best, antiwar, pacifist novels ever written.


Diane Henningfeld

In the following essay, Henningfeld, an assistant professor of English at Adrian College, points out that Remarque's book, based on the novelist's own war experiences, was the first of its kind, and she notes that Remarque's main concern was for the way war irreparably damaged the lives of the survivors.

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front offers readers a fictional yet accurate account of the life of a common soldier in the trenches during final two years of the First World War. Like the book's narrator, Paul Bäumer, Remarque was a German soldier himself. During the decade following the German defeat, he suffered from depression and a sense of loss. Finally, in 1928, he wrote Im Westen nichts Neues, translated into English in 1929 as All Quiet on the Western Front. It quickly became an international best-seller. Soon after the publication of the book, the American-made film of All Quiet on the Western Front was released to international acclaim.

Response to Remarque's work was not all positive, however. In Germany, older people detested the negative portrait of the war and of their generation. In 1933, the German Nazi regime banned and burned the book, as Hans Wagener notes in his Understanding Erich Maria Remarque. Even the showing of the film met with controversy in Berlin; subsequently, the film was banned in Germany.

Paul Fussell notes that the 1928 publication of Remarque's work coincided with the first memoirs of the war written by veterans who wanted the civilian population to know "the truth." Likewise, Brian Rowley partially attributes the success of All Quiet on the Western Front to its timing: "The interval of ten years since the war was short enough for the memoires of participants not to have faded, but long enough for the ex-servicemen to have recovered from their immediate post-war desire to forget."

Remarque's book drew on his first-hand knowledge of the war. He saw in others of his own generation the same hopelessness and lack of roots that he himself felt. Writing the book was his way of speaking for this generation. In a brief preface to All Quiet on the Western Front he writes, "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."

Although Remarque's book is filled with death, it is not intended as a memorial to the eight million who died. Rather, for Remarque, the real tragedy of the war was in the destruction of the survivors, men who returned home from the war utterly changed and unable to resume their roles in society. As Christine R. Barker and R. W. Last write, "What Remarque is asserting in his novel is that, so extreme were the experiences of Bäumer and his comrades that they were utterly devasted by their recognition of the discontinuity of life and the absence of any ultimate meaning in the universe." Through the setting, the structure, the tone of narration and dialogue, the descriptions of modern warfare, and the use of irony, Remarque demonstrates the ways in which the First World War profoundly changed the lives of a whole generation.

Remarque sets All Quiet on the Western Front during the last two years of the war. Germany's strength wanes while that of the Allieds grows from the American entry into the war in 1917. The location Remarque gives his story is the Western Front, along the German lines in France. However, although Remarque's story is that of a German soldier, his descriptions of the trenches and of the battles cross national boundaries. The tense, claustrophobic hours in the trenches waiting for the battle to begin; the huge rats stealing food from the soldiers; the corpses lying mutilated on the battlefield; the daily horrors of war taking on an air of normalcy: these are the experiences of all soldiers of the First World War.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Road Back is Remarque's sequel to his most famous novel. Published in 1931, the story describes the reactions and adjustments of Ernst, another sensitive young soldier, and his comrades as they return to a postwar world.
  • A Farewell to Arms is Ernest Hemingway's novel about a young American lieutenant in World War I, his experience at the Italian front, and his sad but beautiful love affair with a British nurse.
  • The Captain of Kopenick, by playwright Carl Zuckmayer, a close friend of Remarque and also a soldier in the same war, is a true story of an ex-convict who donned the uniform of an army captain and held the mayor of Kopenick to ransom. It is also a satire of the German people's willingness to take orders from anyone in military uniform.
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is about the initiation of Captain John Yossarian, U.S. Air Force officer, into the grim realities of war and describes, in hilarious prose, the mechanical society in which we live today.

As noted above, the first person narrator of the story is Paul Bäumer, a young German foot soldier. Paul tells his story in plain language, short sentences, and in the present tense. Remarque structures the book in short episodes, with periods of intense, horrific battles alternating with episodes of life at the rear in recovery. The overall effect of this contrast is to make the stark details of life at the front even more disturbing than they would be otherwise. Further, the fragmentary structure mirrors the soldiers' experiences as they shuttle between the relative peace and safety of the rear and the horror of the front. Just as Paul experiences the war in fragments, the reader comes to an understanding of the war through the slow accumulation of the fragmented episodes. In many ways, the structure of the book resembles a collage, a work of art created by pasting together small, finely detailed vignettes to create a whole picture of the war.

The narrator's voice is a recorder's voice, the voice of someone trying to convey the truth without embellishment. As the troops move up to the front, for example, Paul tells us, "On the way we pass a shelled out school-house. Stacked up against its longer side is a high double wall of unpolished, brand-new coffins. They still smell of resin, and pine, and the forest. There are at least a hundred." He does not dwell on the implications of the coffins; he merely reports their presence. Paul's voice is emotionally flat. Even when his close friend Müller dies, he does not reveal his inner feelings: "Müller is dead. Someone shot him pointblank in the stomach with a Verey light. He lived for half an hour, quite conscious, and in terrible pain."

Likewise, the dialogue between the men never becomes maudlin or sentimental. The men keep their fears and deep thoughts to themselves. In one instance, Paul must spend the night in a shell crater with a Frenchman he has killed with his bare hands. The man's painful death affects him greatly. Shortly after Kat and Albert find him, Paul tries to explain to them how he felt. They stop him from speaking:

" 'You don't need to lose any sleep over your affair,' nods Albert.

And now I hardly understand it myself anymore.

" 'It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,' I say. 'After all, war is war."'

One notable exception to the generally emotionless narration is during Paul's last night at home during his leave. Paul shares with the reader not only the controlled, outward responses he gives to his mother but also his internal suffering at the parting. Yet neither he nor his mother will put into words the agony each feels. "Here I sit," Paul thinks, "and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it."

Remarque also includes descriptions of the new warfare to which the soldiers of the First World War were exposed. This warfare included the first use of machine guns, tanks, sophisticated explosives, airplanes, and poison gas. Technology outstripped tactics, causing battle losses on a greater scale than Europeans had ever seen. All Quiet on the Western Front moves the impersonal technology of war to a personal level. Through Paul's eyes, the reader is able to witness the technology on a small scale, through one man's experience. For example, when the French launch gas canisters into the German trenches, there is a scramble to put on the gas masks. Then the wait: "These first minutes with the mask decide between life and death: is it air-tight? I remember the awful sights in the hospital: the gas patients who in day-long suffocation cough up their burnt lungs in clots."

Although the book accurately portrays the experiences of soldiers under extreme pressure, All Quiet on the Western Front is not a history or a memoir of the events of the war, as Modris Eksteins points out. Rather, the events Paul relates serve to underscore the broader theme: the senselessness of all wars. Remarque effectively uses irony as a means of driving home this point. The irony is often bitter. For example, when a wounded messenger dog lies a hundred yards from the trenches, Berger decides to go and either "to fetch the beast in or to shoot it." In the attempt, he is killed with a wound to the pelvis, and the man who is sent to fetch Berger is also shot. In another instance, early in the book, Paul and Muller go to visit their friend Kemmerich, who has had a leg amputated. His most valuable possession is his pair of fine leather boots, boots that are useless now because "… even if he should get better, he would be able to use only one—they are no use to him." Müller inherits the boots; when he is killed, he bequeaths the boots to Paul. "I wear them, for they fit me quite well," Paul writes. As readers, we know the irony of this inheritance, something that Paul does not know himself: the acquisition of the boots is a clear signal that he is the next to die. Finally, Paul's death itself is bitterly ironic. He falls in the autumn of 1918, just weeks before the Armistice. Paul dies not in a big battle, but rather "on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: "All quiet on the Western Front."

The closing lines of the novel are doubly ironic, however. We recall that Remarque opens his book with a promise to tell the story of those who have survived the war and have been destroyed by it. Because he dies, Paul is obviously not one of the survivors whose story Remarque promises to tell. Rather, Remarque grants Paul death, but not the horrid, slow death of the French printer, or of the young recruits splattered against the trenches. "Turning him over," the nameless narrator reports, "one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come." For Remarque, this seems to be the ultimate irony: that in the senselessness and brutality of war, there is something much worse than death, and that is survival.

Source: Diane Henningfeld in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Diane Henningfeld

In the following essay, Henningfeld, an assistant professor of English at Adrian College, evaluates the roles of the secondary characters in Remarque's novel.

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front has as its narrator the young German foot soldier, Paul Bäumer. However, in addition to Paul, there are a number of other important characters who function in a variety of ways throughout the book. These secondary characters tend toward stereotypical representations of particular types Remarque wanted present in his account of life at the front.

The secondary characters can be grouped in several distinct categories. First, there are the young soldiers who were friends with Paul in school and decided to enlist at the same time. These include Muller, Albert Kropp, and Leer. The second group includes the friends of the school mates: Tjaden, Haie Westhus, and Stanislaus Katczinsky, called Kat. The third group of secondary characters are what could be termed "outsiders" by virtue of age and their relationships to the soldiers. This group includes Kantorek, the boys' former schoolteacher; Himmelstoss, the sadistic drill instructor; and Paul's family at home.

Remarque reserves some of his most biting commentary for the members of the last group. Kantorek, with his "face like a shrew mouse," is a small, bossy man who convinces his class that they should join the army for the glory of their country. A member of the older generation, he stands for all those men who urge younger men to give up everything in defense of their countries. As Paul reflects, "There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that they were acting for the best—in a way that cost them nothing." When Kantorek ends up in the army himself, he is totally unsuited for the life. One of his former students is given charge of training him and, in a reversal of roles, Kantorek becomes the powerless student.

Likewise, the training instructor Himmelstoss is a member of the older generation who attempts to teach the young men what he thinks they ought to know. However, it quickly becomes clear during their time at the front that Himmelstoss has taught them nothing worthwhile. When Himmelstoss himself is sent to the front, the men he previously mistreated ambush and beat him severely. Eventually, Himmelstoss distinguishes himself under fire by saving Westhus. With this character, Remarque demonstrates how only experience under fire can properly train a man for the brutality of war.

Paul's father is another of the older generation who seems to have no idea what his son must endure. When Paul comes home for leave, he realizes that a gulf has widened between them. His father wants him to share the details of life in battle with his friends, men of his own generation who stay at home. Paul's father symbolizes the whole generation of men who are willing to send their sons off to war but who, nonetheless, want to control the narration of their sons's experiences. Like Paul's father, older Germans did not want to read Remarque's book because of its brutality and lack of glory. They preferred to believe in what the poet Wilfred Owen called "the old lie": it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.

Of those at home, Paul's mother is the only one who does not press him for details of the front. Hers is the traditional plight of women who are expected to sacrifice their sons in the name of patriotic duty. The hardships of the war have made it impossible for her even to feed her family adequately. Thus, her traditional role of family nurturer has been taken from her. Further, in giving her son to the state, she erases her role as mother. Her cancer, then, can be read symbolically: it eats her from within, just as pain, grief, and guilt eat at women from all nations engaged in war.

At the front, the men grow in comradeship. Because they believe that only men who have experienced what they have experienced can understand each other, they find themselves increasingly cut off from their previous lives. While Müller, for example, cannot look back, he does look forward. Paul describes him as a man of "foresight." This foresight at times makes him appear cold and tactless. When he and Paul visit their dying comrade Kemmerich, Müller notices immediately that Kemmerich will no longer need his soft leather boots and so he asks for them. In addition, during a period of rest, Müller pushes each man in the group to describe what he will do in the future, when the war is over. He insists that each man will need a job in the future that he imagines. Ironically, he dies with his new boots, demonstrating how even those with foresight may not survive the war.

The men that the school chums befriend at the front are an assorted lot. Detering, for example, is a peasant farmer. His concerns are in marked contrast to those of Paul and his school friends. As a farmer, Detering's life revolves around sowing, reaping, and harvesting. Farmers are concerned with fertility and growth, not the sterility of war. At one point, Detering becomes enraged when horses are wounded in a battle: "His voice is agitated, it sounds almost dignified as he says, 'I tell you it is the vilest baseness to use horses in the war.'" When asked what he would do if peace were declared he responds, " 'I would go straight on with harvesting.'" The tension between Detering the farmer who brings forth life through his husbandry of the earth's resources and Detering the soldier forced to witness the death of creatures of the earth finally becomes too great. He goes mad and deserts the troop after seeing a cherry tree in blossom. The men believe that he is dead.

Perhaps the most important character at the front is Katczinsky, known as Kat. He is a forty-year-old, shrewd, cunning, hardbitten soldier. Under his tutelage, the school chums learn to look out for themselves. According to Paul, Kat has a "remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs." A cobbler before the war, Kat finds ways to cobble together a more comfortable life for himself and his comrades. Although Kat is of the older generation, the knowledge that he passes on to the younger men directly contrasts the useless lessons taught by Kantorek, Himmelstoss, and the men still at home. Kat's information can save lives; he knows when a barrage is about to start and he can tell the caliber gun by the sound it makes. As Christine R. Barker and R. W. Last write, "Significantly, Kat's qualities are vastly different from those of the group's parents and other figures of authority: he is admired for his ability to survive in a cruel environment and to care for the needs of his comrades." Kat's death near the end of the book leaves Paul alone. Without Kat's caretaking, Paul himself soon falls.

Although Kat is the most important character at the front, the importance of Albert Kropp to the story becomes apparent in retrospect. Paul calls his old school friend "the clearest thinker among us." His ability as a thinker is stressed throughout the early pages of the book. When Muller presses the men about their plans after the war, it is Kropp alone who understands how difficult their homecoming will be: " 'The war has ruined us for everything,'" he says. When Paul and Albert are wounded, they travel together to the army hospital for recovery. Albert's wounds are far more serious than Paul's and he loses his leg. At the end of their hospital stay, Paul reports, "Albert's stump heals well. The wound is almost closed. In a few weeks he should go off to an institution for artificial limbs. He continues not to talk much, and is much more solemn than formerly. He often breaks off his speech and stares in front of him. If he were not here with us he would have shot himself long ago." Kropp's prediction that the war has ruined them for everything seems certain to come true. If all that has kept him alive are his comrades, what will happen when he is separated from them?

When Kropp is sent home and Paul returns to the front, Kropp's significance becomes clear. Because the book ends with the report of Paul's death, we are forced to reconsider the preface Remarque provides at the very beginning at the book. In this brief paragraph, Remarque writes that his book "… will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war." With this reconsideration, we suddenly realize that All Quiet on the Western Front is not Paul's story at all, but rather is the story of men like Kropp, survivors destroyed by the war. Paul, like so many others, ends face down in a field in France, oblivious to the world he leaves. Kropp, however, and the men like him, return shattered to face a world forever changed. According to Remarque, these broken men are the true tragedies of the war, and it is the story of these men that the author promises to tell.

Source: Diane Henningfeld in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

T S. Matthews

In the following review, Matthews praises All Quiet on the Western Front as a gritty, true-to-life treatment of modern warfare and its effects upon humanity.

If a man has been in prison twenty years, and is then released, we should most of us agree that his life has been ruined. Not only have twenty years been taken away from him, but the bitterness of a special and futile knowledge will overshadow the rest of his days. But time, as we know (though none of us knows why), goes fast or slow according to what we are doing and where we find ourselves, and who shall say whether a few years in the trenches of the latest war might not have been the equivalent of at least twenty years in a peaceful jail?

In all the writing about the War which has the stamp of truth on it we find this feeling of the ghastly slowness of time. In All Quiet on the Western Front it is the first thing that strikes us. It is as if the War had been going on forever, and was creeping forward into an endless succession of tomorrows. "We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace." The present moment is all that can possibly exist. Neither the past nor the future will bear thinking about.

This is a book about something that nobody likes to talk of too much. It is about what happens to men in war. It has nothing whatever to do with the politenesses, the nobilities, or any of the sometimes pretty and sometimes ridiculous notions to which the world has once again settled down. The hero is a boy nineteen years old, a private in a German infantry regiment; his friends are mostly the same age. But it is hardly accurate to call them boys; as the author says of them: "We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost."

Some of them have volunteered; more have been drafted. The War, though they do not know it, has passed its peak: the slow decline of attrition has set in. The vague sense of fatality that we are made to feel in the opening pages gradually becomes a realization of approaching defeat. The new recruits come to the front younger and younger—so that even these boy-veterans of nineteen feel aged and protective. This is how the new recruits look when they are dead:

Their sharp, downy faces have the awful expressionlessness of dead children.

It brings a lump into the throat to see how they go over, and run and fall. A man would like to spank them, they are so stupid, and to take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be. They wear grey coats and boots, but for most of them the uniform is far too big, it hangs on their limbs, their shoulders are too narrow, their bodies too slight; no uniform was ever made to these childish measurements.

The steady, unhurrying narrative picks its way from one desolation to another, following the fortunes of these precocious professionals, who have learned how to be soldiers and nothing else. They have their sprees and their moments of happiness, as when the indefatigable Tjaden spots an unlucky pig-pen or poultry-yard; they have their wind-falls, of women and extra rations; they even have their vacations. But it was not always a pleasant change, in Germany of the last war years, to go from the comparative ease of a rest-camp to the evident starvation of home. And between the civilians and the soldiers returned from the front was a gulf impossible to bridge.

They talk to me too much. They have worries, aims, desires, that I cannot comprehend. I often sit with one of them in the little beer-garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this.

And behind all the momentary reprieves lies the inescapable reality of the life to which they are all doomed: "bombardments, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades—words, words, but they hold the horror of the world."

These youngsters whom the War is swiftly making unfit for civilian life (though many of them will not have to make the change) have cast aside, of necessity, all that they have been taught. They have had to become soldiers, and they are nothing else. They believe in the present moment; it is not enough, but it is all they can be sure of. Love they have not known, patriotism and all the other abstract virtues and vices have vanished away in their first drum-fire; but something human they must cling to. They cling to their friends—not literally, and not even in words: when their friends are killed, there is nothing to be said. But what keeps them going in man's machine-made hell is the bodily presence of the friends around them.

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 have said nothing in criticism of this book, and there is little I will say. It is written with simplicity and candor, and reads as if it had been well translated. There is nothing mawkish about it, and nothing "literary"—it is not the artful construction of fancy, but the sincere record of a man's suffering. Unlike the experimental artist, the author has nothing new to say; but he says it so honestly and so well that it is like news to us, though it is bad news.

I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world, see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing—it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

Another country has been heard from. We know by now that the victor nations got nothing but evil from the War; had we expected, then, that the Germans had derived some virtue from defeat? No, the War did no good to anybody. Those of its generation whom it did not kill, it crippled, wasted, or used up. We hear hopes expressed that another generation may be wiser. Let us pray rather, that it will not have to learn such costly wisdom.

Source: T. S. Matthews, "Bad News," in The New Republic, Vol. LIX, No. 759, June 19, 1929, p. 130.


Christine Barker and R. W. Last, Erich Maria Remarque, Oswald Wolff (London) and Barnes and Noble (New York), 1979.

Louis Kronenberger, "War's Horror as a German Private Saw It," in the New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1929, p. 5.

Joseph Wood Krutch, "Glorious War," in the Nation, Vol. 129, No. 3340, July 10, 1929, p. 43.

Brian R. Rowley, "Journalism into Fiction: Im Westen nichts Neues," in The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Holger Klein, Macmillan, 1976, pp. 101-12.

Hans Wagener, Understanding Erich Maria Remarque, University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

For Further Study

Modris Eksteins, "All Quiet on the Western Front and the Fate of a War," in The Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 15, No. 2, April, 1980, pp. 345-65.

This critic argues that All Quiet on the Western Front became a success because it accurately portrayed public sentiment about war in 1929.

Hildegarde Emmel, History of the German Novel, trans. Ellen Summerfield, Wayne State University Press, 1984.

This book places Remarque's story in the context of other German war novels.

Richard Arthur Firda, All Quiet on the Western Front: Literary Analysis and Cultural Context, Twayne, 1993.

An excellent general introduction to the themes, structure, style, and history of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Richard Arthur Firda, Erich Maria Remarque: A Thematic Analysis of His Novels, Peter Lang (Amsterdam), 1988.

This book examines the themes of Remarque's books and refers to his temperament as "meditative and post-Romantic."

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.

The classic study of the intersection of literature and real life in the literature of the First World War.

Frank Ernest Hill, "Destroyed By the War," in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, June 2, 1929, pp. 1-2.

An early review that comments on Remarque's spare style and suggests the is book is "surprisingly un-national."

Charles W. Hoffman, "Erich Maria Remarque," in Dictionary of Literary Biography: German Fiction Writers 1914-1945, edited by James Hardin, Vol. 56, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 222-241.

An excellent starting place for any student; the volume provides an overview of Remarque's life as well as critical commentary.

C.R. Owen, Erich Maria Remarque: A Critical Bio-Bibliography, Rodopi, 1984.

Although not always easy to use, this bibliography provides most notably a good selection of interviews with Remarque.

Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est," in The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited and with an introduction by C. Day Lewis, New Directions, 1963, pp. 55-6.

Owen's famous poem of World War I.

Harley U. Taylor, Erich Maria Remarque: A Literary and Film Biography, Peter Lang, 1989.

Useful source for information on the movie versions of Remarque's novels.