The book “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a powerful anti-war statement that leaves a lasting impact on readers. The author, Remarque, was deeply committed to the cause of peace and hoped that wars would come to an end. He believed that war caused immeasurable human suffering and undermined our fundamental survival instincts.
In the novel, Remarque shows how war destroys everything that is valuable in human life. The title of the book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” was actually an old military phrase that was used during the U.S. Civil War. However, in the novel, the phrase takes on a haunting and melancholic meaning, reflecting the sense of loss and tragedy caused by war.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
In this All Quiet on the Western Front book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
At the urging of their patriotic teacher, Kantorek, a number of high school boys have enlisted in the German army and are now fighting on the Western Front in World War I. (“Western Front” refers to the line of battle separating the Germans from their Western enemies, the English, French, and Americans.)
Though Paul Baumer, the novel’s 20-year-old narrator, has had little experience with life, he is already a seasoned fighter and has firsthand knowledge of warfare at the front. It is 1918, the final year of the war, and Paul’s company has retreated from the front for a two-week rest period after suffering casualties that have reduced its size from 150 men to 80.
It is a moment of relief for these young soldiers who have gone directly from the classroom into trench warfare. Kantorek had instilled in his students the false idea that war was an exciting adventure. Now that the boys have seen the reality of war, they consider him a liar.
Paul’s classmate Albert Kropp is the clearest thinker of the company. Müller, another classmate, carries his schoolbooks into the trench and still dreams of examinations. Leer, their full-bearded friend, was the first of Paul’s class to have sexual intercourse. Josef Behm, a classmate who resisted the war for a long time, finally gave in to Kantorek’s propaganda and was the first to be killed in battle.
Paul’s other friends in the company include Tjaden, a 19-year-old locksmith who remains skinny even though he devours food; Haie Westhus, a peat digger in civilian life; Detering, a peasant who thinks only of his wife and farm; and Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, the group’s leader, a 40-year-old cobbler who becomes Paul’s best friend.
The mail arrives and everyone laughs when Kropp announces that Kantorek sends his best wishes. The older generation has no understanding of the war and know nothing of the hardships that the boys must endure from the likes of Corporal Himmelstoss, their cruel training instructor (“The Terror of Klosterberg”), who is a postman in civilian life.
Paul’s friend, Franz Kemmerich, who was wounded at the front and has had his leg amputated, is certain to die, and when the boys visit him, Müller asks to have Kemmerich’s fine leather boots. On their way back to the huts, Kropp announces angrily that Kantorek has called the boys “the Iron Youth.” Because of the war, it has been a long time since they were “youths.”
Paul’s generation have no roots, no hope of a future, and Paul thinks they have become “a waste land.” The only positive thing to emerge from the war is the feeling of comradeship with other soldiers. Along with Kropp, Tjaden, and Westhus, Paul has defied the tyrannical Himmelstoss from the very beginning.
Once Paul hit him in the stomach, and Himmelstoss’s commander laughingly told the tiny dictator to keep his eyes open. Before dying, Kemmerich gives Müller his boots so that the orderlies won’t seize them. Moments after his death, Franz’s body is hauled away so that his bed can be filled by the next war victim.
Paul and Franz had been childhood friends, and to see a friend pass away before his eyes makes this senseless death all the more disturbing for him.
When new recruits arrive, Kropp jokingly calls them “infants.” Kat, the great scrounger, offers them food that he has managed to find. One night, Paul and his friends talk about the nature of war and power.
Kat thinks that if everyone were given the same food and money, the war would be over in a day Kropp believes war should be treated as a “popular festival” for which tickets are sold and bands play. Paul wonders why Himmelstoss is such a bully, and Kat replies that man is essentially a beast underneath the trappings of civilized behavior.
When Tjaden informs the group that Himmelstoss is being sent to the front line, it reminds the boys of the revenge they had on Himmelstoss the night before leaving for the front. Himmelstoss had been on his way home from a bar, traveling alone on a dark road. The boys threw a blanket over his head, pulled down his pants, beat him, and saw “his striped postman’s backside [gleam] in the moonlight.”
Paul’s unit moves back to the front in order to string barbed wire. He speaks of the soldier’s instinct for self-preservation and how the earth, almost like a mother, protects her children. The air is smoke filled and the soldiers grow tense when they hear the sounds of artillery.
Searchlights sweep the sky and a terrible bombardment begins. The screaming of wounded horses unnerves Detering until the animals are put out of their misery. Paul comforts a terrified recruit moments before an assault traps his group in a graveyard, with only mounds of dirt as protection.
When Paul seeks refuge in a hole, he realizes he is lying next to a corpse in a coffin. A gas attack follows, and when the shelling ends, Paul sees that the young recruit has been seriously wounded. Rain falls as they load up the lorries (horse-drawn wagons) and move to the rear.
While killing the lice in the reserve trenches, the soldiers discuss what they would do if peace came. No one can picture himself leading a meaningful life.
Himmelstoss expects the soldiers to obey him at the front as they had done in camp, and the humane Lieutenant Bertinck treats Himmelstoss’s complaints lightly after the soldiers defy him. Paul and Kat steal a goose, and as they cook it together, Paul feels a deep bond of brotherhood with his friend.
Returning to the front, the soldiers pass a stack of new coffins stored in a ruined school. The coffins are meant for use in the coming offensive, and are a chilling sign of what lies ahead. Days of boredom and uneasy waiting come to an end with a terrible bombardment that precedes an enemy attack.
After a counterattack, the troops withdraw to their own lines. When Haie Westhus is wounded, Himmelstoss brings him in, thereby winning a partial respect from the soldiers. Westhus dies shortly afterward, leaving only 32 of the original 150 men. Paul feels that they have become robots, “insensible, dead men.”
During a rest period, the friends go swimming in a river and see three French women outside their house on the other side of the river. They signal to the women that they will return with food when it is dark. Later that night, Paul, Leer, and Kropp swim across the river, go to the women’s house, and make love with them for an hour.
Paul is reluctant to go on leave, fearing that he has grown out of touch with conditions in the civilian world. But he realizes that his family is eager to see him, so he returns home on a 17-day leave. There, he finds himself uneasy and alienated from his former interests, and has a futile, though moving, conversation about the war with his dying mother. During the furlough,
Paul enjoys his visit with a former classmate, Mittelstaedt, who is a company commander of a reserve guard into which Kantorek has been drafted as a soldier.
Mittelstaedt torments his former teacher with menial tasks and verbal sarcasm as a punishment for the man’s role in their false ideas about the war. Paul’s pleasure is offset when he is faced with telling Franz Kemmerich’s mother about her son’s death. When Paul’s furlough ends, he is sent to a training camp on the plains next to a camp for Russian prisoners. Out of sympathy for the suffering Russians, he shares his food with them.
On returning to the company, Paul joins his friends in preparing for a pointless visit by the Kaiser (Emperor Wilhelm). Later in an attack, Paul crouches in a shellhole and, in a panic, stabs a French soldier to death, one Gérard Duval, who has also taken refuge there. Paul genuinely grieves for the dead man, a printer by trade, who is now another of war’s senseless victims.
He finds identification in Duval’s wallet and photos of his wife and little daughter. A peaceful time of guard duty at a supply depot ends when Paul and Kropp are wounded while trying to evacuate a village. Paul is treated in a hospital, then sent back to the trenches. Kropp’s leg is amputated and he is sent home.
From this moment on, the German army deteriorates and finally collapses. Detering, homesick, deserts the army, but is caught and court-martialed. Müller is killed and his boots pass to Paul. Lieutenant Bertinck dies defending his men from a flamethrower. When Kat is wounded, Paul carries him on his back all the way to the aid station, but Kat is dead on arrival.
It is autumn of 1918, and after Paul spends two weeks recovering from a gas attack, he is killed “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 Baumer: Young soldier; narrator of novel. Little experience in life other than attending school, yet already a veteran frontline soldier. Volunteered for war as teenager. Fond of his parents and sister. Loves to read; collects butterflies. Struggles to understand the meaning of life and nature of war. War teaches him that common misery unites all soldiers—enemies and allies alike. Paul’s only true home is with his fellow soldiers; once the war begins, he can no longer communicate with civilians. Killed in combat during last month of war.
Albert Kropp: Excellent student, clear thinker, idealistic, but pessimistic about life after the war.
Muller: Conscientious student; carries textbooks into trenches; wants to improve himself; sees life in broader terms than confines of war. Dies in combat.
Leer: Good mathematician; bearded; most mature of schoolmates; first to have a sexual experience. Dies in combat.
Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky: Soldier; age 40. Cobbler in civilian life. Clever, practical; becomes Paul’s closest friend. Able to find food in ruined French villages. Kind to frightened young recruits when they arrive at the front. Believes that people mistreat others only because they enjoy having power over them and that man is a beast who hides his true nature under cloak of good manners. Wounded in battle; dies on way to aid station.
Kantorek: Paul’s high school teacher. Mesmerized by unthinking patriotism; gives Paul and his classmates a false idea of war as a romantic, noble activity. At his urging, students enlist in the war, then discover war’s horrors. Later, Kantorek is punished in the army reserve by a former pupil.
Corporal Himmelstoss: Drill instructor. Postman in civilian life. Vengeful, sadistic, tries to break trainees’ spirit. At first, he panics in combat, then proves to be an obedient soldier.
Main Themes and Ideas
1. Lost Generation
Phrase coined by writer Gertrude Stein (1874– 1946) to describe young soldiers who survived the war, but who had no roots, no purpose, no meaning in their lives. The young soldiers have little experience with life and have gone directly from school to war. They are aware of wasted opportunities, loss of life. Paul says, “I believe we are lost.”
Youth have had no time to put down roots; unable to find out who they really are or what they hope to be; many killed before 20th birthday. Unable to acquire practical skills that will serve them in peacetime. No time for love, marriage, normal human relations.
They feel bitterness, frustration, stress, confusion. As victims of “lost generation,” they often remain “lost” (rootless) for rest of their lives. In note at beginning of novel, Remarque writes, “This 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.”
2. Life Has No Meaning
Remarque is pacifist, does not believe in war. From beginning of novel, reader sees pain, devastation, brought about by combat. Moral values of civilization no longer exist: theft and killing are routine, individuals are reduced to robots. Major idea of novel: life no longer has any meaning; war has destroyed everything; God is not in His heaven; things are not well in the world.
Paul repeatedly emphasizes “we” (novel’s first word); for him, presence and voices of his comrades represent strongest, most comforting aspect of life at the front. Only good thing to emerge from war is the sense of comradeship, idea of fraternity, sharing of misery with others like oneself.
All humans—even those who are set against each other as enemies—belong to international community bound together by suffering and sacrifice that go beyond nationality. Paul feels this most intensely in episode with French soldier.
4. Man As Animal
For Kat, humans are animals disguised under layer of respectability (“decorum”). In front zone, war strips away mask, exposes man’s bestial instincts. Harsh ferocity in combat is only way to return safely from danger: “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” Animal instinct of survival is stronger than civilized reaction to war’s horrors: “Life … has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct.” It is kill or be killed. When soldiers hear artillery, primitive impulse rushes to the surface: “By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker….We reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.”
Though motivated by sense of humanity, Paul and Kat speak of putting wounded recruit “out of his misery” in a mercy killing, as if he is an animal. Fine line between animals and humans is highlighted in a scene where horses scream in unison with wounded soldiers.
5. Education and Life
School learning has not prepared young soldiers for survival in trenches. Against dramatic backdrop of war, educational system is shown to deal with subjects that fail to teach practical knowledge or train students for life’s problems. Teachers’ words are hollow, pompous, and betray shallowness of traditional education and of a type of indoctrination based on flag-waving nationalism.
War has no time or use for those matters that society assumes will enrich life and give it meaning. Young men are determined to stay alive, but noble ideas such as dying for their emperor now seem absurd to them.
6. Generation Gap
Soldiers must cope with demands from both trench warfare and home front. They become so used to danger and death in trenches that they find it almost impossible to adjust their habits to more carefree existence of civilians. Creates uneasiness when they go home on leave.
Paul’s elders consider his view of war too narrow, and he is unable to convey his feelings of helplessness and the threat of death that haunts soldiers at every moment. To him, the older generation are eager to overlook fraud and injustice of military life; perhaps it helps them feel less guilty for their generation’s role in the war. Some of them, misguided, are anxious to believe what the authorities tell them.
Others dismiss protests about war because they are reaping huge profits from it. In their innocence, Paul and friends have placed trust in adults as mentors, guides to the future, sources of knowledge, dependability, wisdom. “But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs.” Adults were smarter only in their cleverness with language, ability to manipulate minds. But experience has taught soldiers that they can rely only on themselves.
Butterflies: Symbols of life, childhood, freedom. Two butterflies dancing before trench are contrasted with dead butterflies in Paul’s collection. Dead butterflies, like soldiers, no longer have freedom of life. They are trapped in container, like dead men in coffins. When Paul dies, he falls like a butterfly—quietly and without ado.
Boots: Kemmerich’s rich leather boots symbolize close comradeship among friends: boots are inherited by Müller (who does not ask for them out of greed, but because he realizes that Kemmerich will no longer need them); boots then pass to Paul, who promises them to Tjaden. Boots are symbol of mobility; escape from war; means of protection from cold and wet; common humanity.
Coffins: Living and dead soldiers share coffins during bombardment. Later, as soldiers move to the front, a stack of new coffins in a ruined school symbolizes death that awaits them.
Robots: Symbols of mindless, mechanical beings that people become as result of war and military training. Paul feels that soldiers are robots and resemble the living dead; they carry out their duty from habit, but have no belief in their cause. Idea is echoed, ironically, when Kantorek refers to young soldiers as “Iron Youth.”
Names: When Paul kills Frenchman, he realizes that he will never be able to forget the murder if he knows his victim’s identity. Names give life and humanity to the “robots” of war.
Earth: Symbol of the life force; place of tranquillity and safety; image of earth as mother’s womb.
Impact and Significance
“All Quiet on the Western Front” serves as a poignant reminder of the devastating impact of war on individuals and society. Through the eyes of Paul and his comrades, we witness the tragic loss of innocence, the disillusionment of a generation, and the unimaginable horrors of trench warfare.
The novel also highlights the disconnect between the older generation’s romanticized view of war and the harsh reality faced by those on the front lines.
The novel’s anti-war message remains relevant today, as it forces readers to confront the true nature of war and the lasting impact it has on those who experience it. Remarque’s skillful storytelling and vivid portrayal of the horrors faced by Paul and his comrades make this a powerful and unforgettable read.
1. Vivid and Immersive Scenes
The ability of Remarque to create vivid and immersive scenes in “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a significant strength of the novel. Through his attention to detail and mastery in crafting emotional experiences, Remarque brings readers directly into the trenches alongside the characters. This allows readers to empathize with the characters and gain a visceral understanding of the realities of war.
2. Exploration of Themes
Another strength of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is its exploration of important themes such as loss, disillusionment, and comradeship. The author skillfully weaves these themes throughout the story, adding depth and resonance to the narrative. The anti-war message of the novel is not overtly stated but is instead subtly presented, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about the nature of war and its impact on humanity.
1. Overwhelming Focus on Horrors of War
One of the potential drawbacks of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the overwhelming and relentless depiction of the horrors of war. While this approach effectively conveys the realities faced by soldiers, it can be emotionally draining for readers. The unrelenting focus on brutality can make it difficult for readers to maintain a sense of hope and optimism, which may lead to a sense of despair or despondency.
2. One-Dimensional Portrayal of Older Generation
Another potential weakness of the novel is its portrayal of the older generation as out of touch and ignorant of the reality faced by the soldiers. While this portrayal serves to highlight the intergenerational conflict and the gap between those who have experienced war and those who have not, it can feel one-dimensional and simplistic. This could potentially undermine the complexity of the intergenerational conflict and reduce the novel’s impact.
Yes, I’d recommend you to read the book. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a haunting and deeply moving anti-war statement that forces readers to confront the true nature of war and the tragic loss of innocence it entails.
The novel serves as a timeless reminder of the devastating impact of war on individuals and society, urging us to strive for peace and understanding. This powerful, unforgettable novel is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the devastating consequences of war.
Erich Maria Remarque was a German author who spoke out against war and criticized society. Born in Osnabruck, Germany in 1898, he was drafted into the German army during high school and fought on the Western Front in World War I, where he was wounded five times.
After the war, Erich held various jobs such as teaching, sales, and journalism. In 1932, he moved to Switzerland and then to New York in 1939, where he became a U.S. citizen in 1947. Unfortunately, the Nazis burned his books.
After World War II, Erich spent time in both Switzerland and the United States. He wrote several notable works, including Three Comrades (1937), Arc de Triomphe (1946), The Black Obelisk (1956), and Night in Lisbon (1964).
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