All Quiet on the Western Front: Theme Analysis
The Folly and Deceit of War
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 Gerard Duval, whom he kills. He realizes there is no reason why they should be enemies.
The Psychology of the Soldier
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