All Quiet on the Western Front
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“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
This opening paragraph is a simple, poetic version of the main theme behind All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The point of the story is to show that war is not romantic, glorious, or fantastic. In fact, those words could not be further from the truth. War is a disgusting competition of human instinct, fought by the wrong people. It brings out the worst in everyone; it destroys their compassion, honesty, and ideals. The beginning chapters of All Quiet on the Western Front are devoted to showing that warfare hardens soldiers against true emotions. Their main priority is survival, second is comfort, followed by gain.
In the first chapter, the narrator, Paul Baumer, and his troop have just returned from the front line after suffering heavy casualties. He is joyous because his troop, the Second Company, has been served double rations due to the losses. He and his friends laugh and eat, feeling privileged. They are not at all deterred by the fact that they were gifted this excess of food by 70 fallen comrades. When the cook hears of the losses, he is shocked, but not because of the deaths; he is astonished that he has prepared nearly double the amount of food needed. The soldiers’ disconnection shows more personally when Paul and his friends, Muller and Kropp, go to visit a fellow soldier named Franz Kemmerich who is hospitalized with a leg wound. They realize that he will not leave the hospital alive, but they are not too concerned. In fact, their thoughts revolve more around Kemmerich’s well-crafted boots and who will inherit them once he is passed. It isn’t that they don’t care for their friend; it’s simply that they have learned to push away sadness and other emotions. They must focus on their own lives before mourning the loss of others.
Kropp has received a letter from his schoolmaster, Kantorek. His letter refers to Kropp, Paul, and all the other boys of their age as the “Iron Youth.” They take the letter in good spirits, but they all feel deeply embittered and betrayed by Kantorek and the men of the older generation. Kantorek preached to them of patriotism and honor. He told them that in a war you fight for your country, and you should be proud of it. It did not take them long to realize that this was not true. Battle is terrifying. In a war, every soldier fights for one reason: his survival. All ideals of honor and nationalism are dropped, and the desire to remain alive consumes one’s thoughts. Kantorek did not teach this to the “Iron Youth.” They only began to understand this under the training of their malicious drill sergeant, Corporal Himmelstoss.
Paul, Kropp, Muller, and Kemmerich were put in No. 9 Platoon under Himmelstoss, a power hungry and sinister little man who is a postal worker in peacetime. After dealing with his torturous