The Ruination Caused by War in Erich Maria Remarque's Novel All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel that depicts the tragic journey of Paul Baumer during the first world war. Before the war, Paul was a young, artistic boy who was manipulated into enlisting with his classmates.
Throughout the war, slowly his soul was drained through the death of his friends, horrors of war, disconnection from the world and the deprivation of a future. By the end of the novel “the war has ruined [Paul] for everything.” He is left broken physically and mentally through the robbery of his purpose, motivation, humanity and artistic spirit. Paul became a ghost of his past self. Hopeless and dead.
Paul’s innocence and humanity were stolen from him prematurely, through the horror and ferocity of the war. Before the war, Paul saw the world through the eyes of a boy. A passionate, innocent boy. Now he sees it through the eyes of an old man. All of the pain, suffering, and death surrounding him shattered his idyllic fantasy of the world. The atrocities he has witnessed matured him beyond years can count. He now sees things how they are, not how he wishes them to be. The continuous insipid bombings and justifiable murder awaken the human primitive instinct; kill or be killed.
At the front, the soldiers “do not fight, [they] just defend themselves against annihilation.” They “become wild beasts” and an “animal instinct” rouses from deep inside them. The soldiers do not fling bombs to kill the enemy, they fling them to escape Death because at any time “Death [could be] hunting [them] down.” Paul fires at his enemy in self-defense and a will for survival, not out of abhorrent, irrational hate for his enemy. When the French man stumbles into the crater that Paul is hiding in, he doesn’t hesitate, he doesn’t “think at all” just stabs wildly. After Paul realises what he has done he feels repugnant and crawls away from him to the farthest corner. The animal instinct of kill or be killed possessed Paul’s body and compelled him into killing the French man to survive.
The lack of explanation into main characters deaths is to emphasize the irrelevance of their deaths. Kat, Muller, Kimmerich, Haie, Leer, Bertinck, Paul, Detering. 8 deaths out of millions. They are just a number. Unimportant, negligible, insignificant. When the roar of artillery shells halted, the sound was replaced with the screams of injured horses. The shrieks of the horses are the “moaning of the world …, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning.” Following this “the belly of one is ripped open, the guts trail out. He becomes tangled in them and falls, then stands up again.” No-one will be able to forget such a provocative, repulsive scene which will haunt Paul’s mind for the rest of the war no matter how far he pushes it away. The theft of Paul’s humanity and innocence was merciless but essential for his survival, a quality which abandoned many soldiers.
The war disconnected the soldiers from their previous lives and their identities were crippled. All the soldiers knew was war, war defined them and without it they were nothing. When Paul was away from the war, he felt detached from his family because they couldn’t relate to him anymore. Ordinary civilians have not experienced the depravity and brutality the soldiers had seen during their time at the front. When Paul is on leave his mother asks him if he is all right and if it is “bad out there…”. Paul lies to her so that she doesn’t worry about him, however by lying he is disconnecting himself further from his family. This makes it impossible for Paul’s family to understand the biggest part of Paul’s identity which isolates him from his family further. Paul no longer is interested in art, the “powerful, nameless urge that [he] used to feel” when writing plays and reading books has transformed into a will for survival.
Before the war, Paul was motivated and connected with society, but through the belligerent barbarism that he experiences in the war converts him into a cynical, callous soldier and he lost touch with his previous life. Paul realises that it is him that has changed, not the civilians so much to the point where “it is a foreign world” at home. The ruthlessness of war has isolated Paul from the “foreign world” which is society. Paul’s experiences during the war have changed his identity drastically so much that his own family can’t recognise or connect with him.
The war had stripped the soldiers of any visions of a future. Most of the young soldiers had no future plans outside of the war, for the few soldiers that did have plans, their plans were vague and unrealistically peaceful to be a pragmatic possible future. The older soldiers had something to go back to, a wife, children, farmland. All the younger soldiers had to go back to was a world of trauma and torture. In chapter 5 Muller leads a dangerous conversation on what his mates will do once the war is over. Albert will “get drunk” because “what else should a [soldier] do”. Tjaden will do everything he can to make Himmelstoss’s life a living hell and Paul is unsure about his future. Detering will go back to his farm and family, Kat will go back to his family and Haie will dig peat. Detering, Kat, and Haie “will go back to their jobs because they had them already.” They have something or someone waiting for them to come back, the others have nothing waiting for them, which affects their ability to see past the war.
The war is an opaque wall blocking them from a halcyon successful life. For the older members of Paul’s mates, they will slowly recover from the war because they can continue their previous life from where they left off. For the younger members, the war will never end. They will forever be fighting a war with their mind. They will have to restart their lives but with the memories of all the horrors of war. There will be no-one to share the pain with because no-one will understand them. The war not only devastated the soldiers’ lives during the war, but it also destroyed their futures.
Paul experiences many hardships in his battle for survival. For Paul, “the war…ruined [him] for everything.” He lost his innocence, became disconnected from the outside world, and was deprived of a future. They came into the war hopeful, enthusiastic and blinded by patriotism and glorification, and they left the war broken, hopeless and dead.
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