All Quiet On The Western Front


"For it is no easy undertaking, I say, to describe the
bottom of the Universe; nor is it for tongues that only
babble child's play."
(The Inferno, XXXII, 7-9.)
Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet On The Western Front", a
novel set in World War I, centers around the changes
wrought by the war on one young German soldier. During his
time in the war, Remarque's protagonist, Paul Baumer,
changes from a rather innocent Romantic to a hardened
andsomewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during the
course of this metamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself
from those societal icons-parents, elders, school,
religion-that had been the foundation of his pre-enlistment
days. This rejection comes about as a result of Baumer's
realization that the pre-enlistment society simply does not
understand the reality of the Great War. His new society,
then, becomes the Company, his fellow trench soldiers,
because that is a group which does understand the truth as
Baumer has experienced it.
Remarque demonstrates Baumer's disaffiliation from the
traditional by emphasizing the language of Baumer's pre-
and post-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or
chooses not to, communicate truthfully with those
representatives of his pre-enlistment and innocent days.
Further, he is repulsed by the banal and meaningless
language that is used by members of that society. As he
becomes alienated from his former, traditional, society,
Baumer simultaneously is able to communicate effectively
only with his military comrades. Since the novel is told
from the first person point of view, the reader can see how
the words Baumer speaks are at variance with his true
feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarque maintains
that "a generation of men ... were destroyed by the war"
(Remarque, All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in "All Quiet on the
Western Front", the meaning of language itself is, to a
great extent, destroyed.
Early in the novel, Baumer notes how his elders had been
facile with words prior to his enlistment. Specifically,
teachers and parents had used words, passionately at times,
to persuade him and other young men to enlist in the war
effort. After relating the tale of a teacher who exhorted
his students to enlist, Baumer states that "teachers always
carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and
trot them out by the hour" (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15).
Baumer admits that he, and others, were fooled by this
rhetorical trickery. Parents, too, were not averse to using
words to shame their sons into enlisting. "At that time
even one's parents were ready with the word 'coward'"
(Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days, Baumer
asserts that, as a result of his war experiences, he has
learned how shallow the use of these words was.
"Indeed, early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that
although authority figures taught that duty to one's
country is the greatest thing, we already knew that
death-throes are stronger. But for all that, we were no
mutineers, no deserters, no cowards-they were very free
with these expressions. 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. 17)
What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words
and expressions used by the pillars of society do not
reflect the reality of war and of one's participation in
it. As the novel progresses, Baumer himself uses words in a
similarly false fashion.
A number of instances of Baumer's own misuse of language
occur during an important episode in the novel-a period of
leave when he visits his home town. This leave is
disastrous for Baumer because he realizes that he cannot
communicate with the people on the home front because of
his military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent,
understanding of the war.
When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer is
overwhelmed at being home. His joy and relief are such that
he cannot speak; he can only weep (Remarque, All Quiet VII.
140). When he and his mother greet each other, he realizes
immediately that he has nothing to say to her: "We say very
little and I am thankful that she asks nothing" (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 141). But finally she does speak to him and
asks, "'Was it very bad out there, Paul?'" (Remarque, All
Quiet VII. 143).
Here, when he answers, he lies, ostensibly to protect her
from hearing of the chaotic conditions from which he has
just returned. He thinks 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. 143)
Even in trying to protect her, by using words that are
false, Baumer creates a separation between his mother and
himself. Clearly, as Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not
for the uninitiated. On another level, however, Baumer
cannot respond to his mother's question: he understands
that the experiences he has had are so overwhelming that a
"civilian" language, or any language at all, would be
ineffective in describing them. Trying to replicate the
experience and horrors of the war via words is impossible,
Baumer realizes, and so he lies. Any attempt at telling the
truth would, in fact, trivialize its reality.
During the course of his leave, Baumer also sees his
father. The fact that he does not wish to speak with his
parent (i.e., use few or no words at all) shows Baumer's
movement away from the traditional institution of the
family. Baumer reports that his father "is curious [about
the war] in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I no
longer have any real contact with him" (Remarque, All Quiet
VII. 146). In considering the demands of his father to
discuss the war, Baumer, once again, realizes the
impossibility, and, in this case, even the danger, of
trying to relate the reality of the war via language.
"There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it.
I realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such
things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous
for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they
might then bcome gigantic and I be no longer able to master
them." (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146)
Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the
experience of war meaningful within a verbal context: the
war is too big, the words describing it would have to be
correspondingly immense and, with their symbolic size,
might become uncontrollable and, hence, meaningless.
While with his father, Baumer meets other men who are
certain that they know how to fight and win the war.
Ultimately, Baumer says of his father and of these men that
"they talk too much for me ... They understand of course,
they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with
words, only with words" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 149).
Baumer is driven away from the older men because he
understands that the words of his father's generation are
meaningless in that they do not reflect the realities of
the world and of the war as Baumer has come to understand
Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallen
comrade, Kemmerich. As he did with his own mother, he lies,
this time in an attempt to shield her from the details of
her son's lingering death. Moreover, in this conversation,
we see Baumer rejecting yet another one of the traditional
society's foundations: religious orthodoxy. He assures
Kemmerich's mother that her son "'died immediately. He felt
absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite calm'"
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). Frau Kemmerich doesn't
believe him, or, at least, chooses not to. She asks him to
swear "by everything that is sacred to" him (that is, to
God, as far as she is concerned) that what he says is true
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). He does so easily because
he realizes that nothing is sacred to him. By perverting
this oath, Baumer shows both his unwillingness to
communicate honestly with a member of the home front and
his rejection of the God of that society. Thus, another
break with an aspect of his pre-enlistment society is
effected through Baumer's conscious misuse of language.
During his leave, perhaps Baumer's most striking
realization of the vacuity of words in his former society
occurs when he is alone in his old room in his parents'
house. After being unsuccessful in feeling a part of his
old society by speaking with his mother and his father and
his father's friends, Baumer attempts to reaffiliate with
his past by once again becoming a resident of the place.
Here, among his mementos, the pictures and postcards on the
wall, the familiar and comfortable brown leather sofa,
Baumer waits for something that will allow him to feel a
part of his pre-enlistment world. It is his old schoolbooks
that symbolize that older, more contemplative, less
military world and which Baumer hopes will bring him back
to his younger 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
colored 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. 151)
But Baumer continues to wait and the sign does not come;
the quiet rapture does not occur. The room itself, and the
pre-enlistment world it represents, become alien to him. "A
sudden feeling of foreignness suddenly rises in me. I
cannot find my way back" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 152).
Baumer understands that he is irredeemably lost to the
primitive, military, non-academic world of the war.
Ultimately, the books are worthless because the words in
them are meaningless. "Words, Words, Words-they do not
reach me. Slowly I place the books back in the shelves.
Nevermore" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 153). In his
experiences with traditional society, Baumer perverts
language, that which separates the human from the beast, to
the point where it has no meaning. Baumer shows his
rejection of that traditional society by refusing to, or
being unable to, use the standards of its language.
Contrasted with Baumer's experiences during his visit home
are his dealings with his fellow trench soldiers. Unlike
Baumer's feelings at home where he chooses not to speak
with his father and makes an empty vow to Frau Kemmerich,
Baumer is able to effect true communication, of both a
verbal and spiritual kind, with his fellow trench soldiers.
Indeed, within this group, words can have a meaningful,
soothing, even rejuvenating, effect.
Not long after his return from leave, Baumer and some of
his comrades go out on patrol to ascertain the enemy's
strength. During this patrol, Baumer is pinned down in a
shell hole, becomes disoriented, and suffers a panic
attack. He states: "Tormented, terrified, in my
imagination, I see the gray, implacable muzzle of a rifle
which moves noiselessly before me whichever way I try to
turn my head" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 184-85). He is
unable to regain his equanimity until he hears voices
behind him. He recognizes the voices and realizes that he
is close to his comrades in his own trench. The effect of
his fellow soldiers' words on Baumer is antithetical to the
effect his father's and his father's friends' empty words
have on him.
At once a new warmth flows through me. 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. 186)
Here, Baumer understands the reviving effects of his
comrades' words. Strikingly, as opposed to his town's
citizens' empty words, the words of Baumer's comrades
actually go beyond their literal meanings. That is, whereas
Baumer notices that the words of the traditional world have
no meaning, the words of his comrades have more meaning
than even they are aware of.
In fact, true communication can exist in the world of the
war with few or no words said at all. This phenomenon is
perhaps best demonstrated in the novel during a scene
involving Baumer and his Second Company mate, Stanislaus
Katczinsky. This scene, with its Eucharistic overtones, can
be counterpoised to Baumer's meeting with Kemmerich's
mother. During that meeting, Frau Kemmerich insisted on
some kind of verbal attestation of Baumer's spiritual
disposition. As noted above, he is quite willing to give
her such an asseveration because the words he uses in doing
so mean nothing to him. With Katczinsky, though, the
situation is different because the spirituality of the
event is such that words are not necessary, in fact, would
be hindrances to the communion Baumer and Katczinsky attain.
The scene is a simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky have
stolen a goose, in a small deserted lean-to, they eat it
"We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in
shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night.
We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete
communion with one another than even lovers have ... The
grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to
one another ... we sit with a goose between us and feel in
unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak".
(Remarque, All Quiet V. 87)
These elemental and primitive activities of getting and
then eating food bring about a communion, a feeling "in
unison," between the two men that clearly cannot be found
in the word-heavy environment of Baumer's home town.
Perhaps Remarque wants to make the point that true
communication can occur only in action, or in silence, or
almost accidentally. At any rate, Baumer demonstrates
toward the end of his life that even he is not immune from
verbal duplicity of a kind that was used on him to get him
to enlist.
Soon after he hears the comforting words of his comrades
(see above), Baumer is caught in another shell hole during
the bombardment. Here, he is forced to kill a Frenchman who
jumps into it while attacking the German lines. Baumer is
horrified at his action. He notes, "This is the first time
I have killed with my hands, whom I can see close at hand,
whose death is my doing" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 193).
That is, the war, and his part in it, have become much more
personalized because now he can actually see the face of
his enemy. In his grief, Baumer takes the dead man's
pocket-book from him so that he can find out the deceased's
name and family situation. Realizing that the man he killed
is no monster, that, in fact, he had a family, and is
evidently very much like himself, Baumer begins to make
promises to the corpse. He indicates that he will write to
his family and goes so far as to promise the corpse that
he, Baumer, will take his place on earth: "'I have killed
the printer, Gerard Duval. I must be a printer'" (Remarque,
All Quiet IX. 197). More importantly, Baumer renounces his
status as soldier by apologizing to the corpse for killing
"Comrade, I did not want to kill you ... You were only an
idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and
called forth its appropriate response. It was that
abstraction I stabbed ... Forgive me, comrade. We always
see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are
poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious
as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the
same dying and the same agony-Forgive me, comrade; how
could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and
this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat ..."
(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 195)
In addition to the obvious brotherhood of nations sentiment
that appears in Baumer's eulogy, it is interesting to note
that Baumer sees that Duval could have been even
closer-like Katczinsky, a member of Baumer's inner circle
of Second Company.
All of the sentiments, all of the words, that Baumer
articulates to Duval are admirable, but they are absolutely
As time passes, as he spends more time with the corpse of
Duval in the shell-hole, Baumer realizes that he will not
fulfill the various promises he has made. He cannot write
to Duval's family; it would be beyond impropriety to do so.
Moreover, Baumer renounces his brotherhood sentiments:
"Today you, tomorrow me" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197).
Soon, Baumer admits, "I think no more of the dead man, he
is of no consequence to me now" (Remarque, All Quiet IX.
198). And later, to hedge his bets in case there happens to
be justice in the universe, Baumer states, "Now merely to
avert any ill-luck, I babble mechanically: 'I will fulfill
everything, fulfill everything I have promised you-' but
already I know that I shall not do so" (Remarque, All Quiet
IX. 198).
Remarque's point in this episode is clear: no one is exempt
from the perversion of language vis-a-vis the war. Even
Paul Baumer, who had been disgusted by the meaninglessness
of language as demonstrated in his home town, himself uses
words and language that are meaningless. Once he is
reunited with his comrades after the shell hole episode,
Baumer admits "it was mere drivelling nonsense that I
talked out there in the shell-hole" (Remarque, All Quiet
IX. 199). Why does Baumer do it? Why does he employ the
same types of vacuous words and sentiments that his elders
and teachers had used and for which he has no respect? "It
was only because I had to lie [One assumes that this double
meaning is apparent only in English.] there with him so
long ... After all, war is war" (Remarque, All Quiet IX.
Ultimately, that is all that Paul Baumer and the reader are
left with: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot even
be discussed with any accuracy. It has no sense and, in
fact, is the embodiment of a lack of any kind of meaning.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
shows the disorder created by the war. This disorder
affects such elemental societal institutions as the family,
the schools, and the church. Moreover, the war is so
chaotic that it infects the basic abilities, not the least
of which is verbal, of humanity itself. By showing how the
First World War deleteriously affects the syntax of
language, Remarque is able to demonstrate how the war
irreparably alters the order of the world itself.
Work cited:
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books, 1984. 

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