All Quiet on the Western Front1

All Quiet on the Western Front

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 and somewhat 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,

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 can not 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.