The Folly and Deceit of War
All Quiet on the Western Front has a fiercely anti-war theme. The trench warfare of World War I is shown to be a hell on earth that inflicts cruel deaths and senseless suffering on all who are caught up in it. It dehumanizes the soldiers who fight endlessly for nothing, since in many of the fiercest battles, hardly any territory is won or lost-and yet casualties are huge.
The anti-war theme is seen in everything from the detailed descriptions of battle, to the terrible mutilations and injuries of the men in the military hospital, and the patriotic nonsense talked by the men of the older generation.
Men like Kantorek talk about the "Iron Youth" and their patriotic duty, but this is shown to be a fantasy. The soldiers of Second Company, when they discuss the causes of the war, show how shallow the arguments about patriotism are. Each side believes patriotically in the rightness of its cause, but they cannot both be right. To say that war happens because one country offends another is ridiculous, says Tjaden, since the ordinary people of each country do not feel offended. Kat points out that the majority of people in France and Germany are simple folk just going about their lives: "Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us?" (p. 207). His conclusion is that it is only the rulers who order war, and only emperors and generals who profit from it.
The anti-war position is driven home again when Paul recognizes the humanity in the Russian prisoners, even though they have been declared to be his enemy. He sees the same common humanity in the French soldier Gï¿½rard Duval, whom he kills. He realizes there is no reason why they should be enemies.
Comradeship is the only thing that enables the soldiers to survive in such an inhuman and deadly environment. In numerous episodes the comradeship between the men of Second Company is emphasized. Paul and Kat, and Paul and Kropp are shown to be especially close.
They get to know each other intimately. Paul notes as he goes off on his leave and says goodbye to Kat and Kropp, "I know their every step and movements; I would recognize them at any distance" (p. 155). A typical example of the comradeship theme comes when Paul has a panic attack hiding in a shell-hole. He should be moving forward but he is too fearful. Then he hears the voices of his friends moving along the trench. This restores his courage. His thoughts at that point sum up the entire theme of comradeship:
At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices, these few quiet words, these footsteps in the trench 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.(ch. 9. p. 216)
The Psychology of the Soldier
Remarque, who fought in World War I himself (he was wounded five times) gives great insight into the psychology of the soldier who has to endure such unendurable conditions.
The only reason a soldier manages to survive in the trenches is because he is "indifferent and often hopeless" (p.187). The appalling slaughter that is the soldier's everyday companion results in the "annihilation of all human feeling" (p. 196).
Paul explains this psychology of survival most completely at the beginning of Chapter 11. It is the reduction of life to its essentials. The soldier only allows that which is absolutely necessary to life to occupy his mind and dictate his actions; "all else lies buried in gloomy sleep" (p. 270). The sole goal is the preservation of basic existence; the men have been transformed into "unthinking animals." But this is a precarious and vulnerable position to be in, since it is artificial and can only be maintained with great effort.
What happens when a spark of the longing for life is reawakened is illustrated in the story of Detering. He is undone when he allows the sight of the cherry tree in blossom to reawaken his desire for life and home. He is no longer adapted to life in the trenches and so makes a fatal mistake.
The Generation Gap
Since it was the older generation, embodied in figures such as the schoolmaster Kantorek, who pushed the younger generation into war, the young people have now lost faith in those in authority. The older generation was supposed to be wiser, but all they did was send their sons into the hell of the trenches. For this reason, Paul can no longer trust the older generation. He has nothing to learn from them, except not to be like them. All the older people he encounters on his leave have a complete misunderstanding of the war, and yet they think they know everything.