class distinctions in WW2 literature




In nearly every culture, certain distinctions exist which elevate particular members of society above others. These distinctions may be based upon age, wisdom, ancestry, gender or profession, but more often than not, class lines seem to be drawn on the basis of wealth. While the existence of these status groups may be harmless, when prejudice prevents the movement of individuals or social groups between and within classes, valuable human resources are being put to waste. This issue was of concern during the First World War. While the class system in place in Western Europe did allow for a certain amount of social mobility, distinctions among classes were nonetheless evident and well defined. Both Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet… call attention to the idea that social position should be of little or no significance in the face of wartime’s human pain, suffering and death.
In All Quiet, the main character, a young German named Paul Baumer, enlists in the army. Initially, in his company, two distinct classes of individuals exist. Paul and his four schoolmates are well educated and of a higher station in life. They are still teenagers, fresh from school, and have volunteered for the war. The other group consists of peasants and common laborers. In the beginning of the novel the reader is made keenly aware of the differences between the two groups as Paul introduces the characters. Paul mentions his fellow classmates first. This ordering lends the idea that Paul thinks more highly of his classmates than he does of the other less-educated soldiers. The differentiation is further heightened by the syntax used. The common soldiers are described in an entirely different paragraph from the educated boys. Standing in the mess line, Paul says that “close behind us were our friends” (Remarque 3). Not only are these men physically “behind” in the line, they are also “behind” in social status. Also interesting to note is the fact that as “our friends,” these common men are only important or memorable in so much as they relate to Paul and his classmates. The pronoun “our” gives a sense of possession and thus a certain amount of inferiority in comparison to the educated boys.
As the novel progresses, so do Paul’s relationships and respect for his fellow soldiers. Paul quickly learns that experience and wisdom are perhaps more valuable than academics. While reminiscing with his classmates about old school days, Paul comes to the conclusion that in war, intellectual knowledge is almost useless. As students, Paul and his classmates were put through a rigorous and demanding curriculum by their schoolmaster Kantorek. However, the information that they learned now has no practical application. During combat, knowing the purpose of the Poetic League of Gottingen or the number of inhabitants of Melbourne seems worthless to a soldier in comparison to knowing “that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs” (Remarque 85). Paul “[remembers] mighty little of all that rubbish. Anyway, it has never been the slightest use to us” (Remarque 85).
In contrast to the useless information memorized in school, life-experiences are of great wartime value. Remarque uses the character of Stanislaus Katczinsky to express this point. Kat is forty years of age at the beginning of the novel and has a wife and children at home. He is a resourceful, inventive man, and always seems able to find food, clothing, and blankets whenever he and his friends need them and thus becomes the group’s unofficial leader. Paul describes him as having “a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs” (Remarque 4). Kat’s skills are direct results of his age and experience. They are gained through living not school-learning. Despite being relatively uneducated, Kat is presented as the cleverest of all the characters.
As the war continues, the lines between the two groups within Paul’s company begin to fade. During the course of his experience with war, Paul disaffiliates himself from those societal icons, such as parents, elders, school, and religion, which had been the foundation of his pre-enlistment days. His new society becomes the company, his fellow trench soldiers. They are a group who