All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque describes the school-aged German soldier Paul Bäumer’s involvement in World War I. The book shows how he and his comrades changed during the war. From their early time in training to their deaths towards the end of the war. However, rather than idealistically show us how Paul patriotically fights for his country on free will and is rewarded, we see quite the opposite. By the end of the book, we understand the point Remarque is trying to make. He shows us the true horrors of war, past the propaganda and politics. We see perfectly good young minds with aspirations, hopes, and dreams crushed by war. The savagery of battle forces the soldiers to develop animalistic instincts and unbreakable friendships to survive. The soldiers are consumed with the instinct to survive, turning them from bright scholars into animals hellbent on survival.
The first few pages stress how war destroys all individuality into one, shared personality. Most comparable war books are narrated in the first-person by the main character ( Paul), starting with the protagonist reflecting on their development from an untrained recruit into a soldier. However, Paul begins his account by using the third-person to describe not only himself but his fellow soldiers as well. From the start, Paul is absorbed by the troop, a troop reduced to physical functions and gluttonous animal-like appetites. The third-person dominates this first chapter as the soldiers think with a single personality, moved by the same common desires. Such as hunger, excitement, and impatience. The emotions that concern the troop are not spurred. from human personalities, but rather from the most basic of animal needs with which all humans are pre-programmed with. What unifies the soldiers, we discover, are not abstract thinking and complex emotions, but the stomach and the intestines—full bellies and general latrines.
In order to tolerate the horrors of war, Paul must alter his feelings and empathy, so all that remains is, a “human animal.” In Chapter Seven, Paul recounts how he must separate himself from his emotions and rely solely on perfunctory, animal instincts. In war, the characteristics which make a person human can certainly cost a soldier his sanity, if not his life. As Paul states it; The attributes that compose the human experience—are “ornamental enough during peacetime.” A soldier must discard his immediate emotional impulses to survive, but he must also discard his remembrance of the past and hopes for the future. The war becomes the sole focal point of his world and attention. His identity before (writer Paul) or after becomes a stinging distraction. The only things that matter on the battlefields of World War I are the immediate physical threats: shells, gas, bullets, and machine guns.
The soldiers are animalistic in the way that they reject human emotions and live attentively in the present. Also, in the vicious struggle for power through the practice of brute force. In seeing how a seemingly unassertive postman like Himmelstoss could become such a tyrant, Kat, explains that the army’s hierarchy stirs the animals concealed within human beings. Kat argues that civilization is just a facade, and humans are more similar to animals than they would like to admit. When viciously beating Himmelstoss, Paul illustrates through actions Kat’s point by displaying behavior more fitted to a savage animal rather than to a logical individual.
If, as Kat says, it is the arrangement of the army that is accountable for bringing out the soldiers’ collective animal side, then perhaps the end of the war will enable the soldiers to return to normal (their individual personalities). For Paul, the thought of the wars’ end doesn’t seem to guarantee a seamless re-introduction to civilized human society. Paul believes that a return to civilized society will be an exceedingly changing experience, one in which “others will not understand” him and in which veterans of his generation will become “superfluous.” His war experience has excluded Paul from the general civilian community, and now the only form of community he can rely on is the animalism of his fellow soldiers. As Paul voices his fear that his generation will fail to “adapt” to the civilized world, his use of Darwinian language draws a final link between the human and animal kingdoms, suggesting that war not only turns the soldier from a human individual into an animal, but that by doing so it ineradicably alters the individual’s ability to relate to other humans.
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