Remarque's epigraph spells out in no uncertain words the major theme of his novel: war is brutal and it destroys even those who physically survive. However, he first claims the book is not an "accusation"; it seems doubtful that criticism will not accompany such a harsh view of war and of those who promote it.
Chapter 1 Summary:
Paul Bäumer, the narrator, and his fellow German soldiers of the Second Company recuperate behind the front in World War I after having fought for two weeks. The last day of fighting thinned their ranks from 150 men to 80. As the men receive their rations, Paul describes them. Three 19-year-old boys from his class volunteered for the war: Albert Kropp, the "clearest thinker" among them; Müller, a physics-inclined academic; and Leer, lusty and sexually mature. Their friends include Tjaden, a skinny 19-year-old locksmith; Haie Westhus (referred to hereafter as "Haie"), a large peat-digger, also 19; Detering, a married peasant; and Stanislaus Katczinsky (referred to hereafter as "Kat"), their wise and crafty 40-year-old leader.
The cook, Ginger, has prepared enough food for 150 men. The soldiers dislike Ginger because he does not bring the food close to the front lines during fighting, and it is always cold. They want the leftovers and get into an argument. Their lieutenant comes over and orders Ginger to serve all the food.
Paul describes the latrines; there is a common one for 20 men in which everyone is visible under constant supervision, and there are scattered individual latrines. He remembers how embarrassing it was at first to use the common latrine, but worse things have since made them overlook it. Still, he enjoys doing his "business" in the open air, finding it natural. Much of the soldiers' graphic vocabulary comes from dealings with their stomachs and intestines; in fact, most gossip originates in the latrines. They often play cards in the latrines, and sometimes indirectly refer to near-death experiences. They decide to visit a wounded soldier, Kemmerich, that afternoon. Kropp says Kantorek, their former schoolmaster, sends his regards in a letter.
Kantorek, a small, stern man, used to lecture his pupils at length about the benefits of volunteering for the war. The boys, not knowing what they were getting into, were fearful of being labeled cowards for not joining. The "poor and simple" people knew the war would be trouble, while the others were ecstatic to be part of it. One student, Joseph Behm, reluctantly joined and was almost immediately killed. The boys felt let down by Kantorek and his kind. They had relied on their elders to guide them wisely into maturity, but once they witnessed death, the boys realized that their own generation was more trustworthy. Nevertheless, the boys patriotically and courageously continue to fight and die--only now they see the world for what it is, and see that they are alone.
The boys bring Kemmerich's things so he has them for when he returns. They find him resting weakly in a room at the dressing station. Someone stole his expensive watch while he was unconscious. Paul and the others can see it doesn't matter, as Kemmerich will die here. Kemmerich is unaware that his leg has been amputated. They try to cheer him up, but he is a deathly shell of his former self. When they bring him his expensive boots, the boys all think that they are useless to him now, and if they stay here, the orderlies will steal them. Müller tries to convince Kemmerich to give them up, but he does not want to. Paul promises to visit him again in the morning; Müller does, too, thinking of the boots. Outside, Paul bribes an orderly with cigarettes to give Kemmerich a dose of precious morphia (morphine).
Kropp makes sure Kemmerich receives the morphine, and Müller talks more about the boots. They predict Kemmerich will die by tomorrow, and Paul thinks about the letter he must write to Kemmerich's mother. Kropp gets angry on the way back, then calms down. He says Kantorek called them the "'Iron Youth'" in his letter. Paul feels they are no longer young, despite their age.
World War I, official begun in 1914 with the assassination of Serbian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, developed out of 19th-century conflicts between European imperial powers. Nationalism, the unswerving dedication to and promotion of one's country, heated up in Europe during this time and reached a boiling point during the war. The intricate political relationships formed two major unions at the start of the war: the Triple Alliance of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, Russia.
Kantorek personifies this generally insidious nationalism. He bullies the youth into joining the war, and they do so out of fear of being ostracized as a coward. Once they are in the war, he and others keep them there with grandiose talk of country and duty. However, as Paul bitterly reflects, Kantorek and his kind are not the ones fighting and dying.
Moreover, the young soldiers are not the "Iron Youth" Kantorek believes them to be. Death has aged them considerably. They no longer trust their elders, and the world now seems much more cruel and hard. WWI was the first truly "modern" war; new technologies and tactics like tanks, chemical gas, and trench warfare brutalized soldiers in unprecedented ways. Approximately nine million men were killed (not including those from Russia, which is estimated to have lost six million soldiers); Germany accounted for nearly two million of these casualties. Roughly half of the 70 million men and women serving in the war were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
The soldiers have found a new kind of loneliness and alienation befitting this new kind of war. It emerges when they see Kemmerich, a wasted, gruesome vision of death. However, there is some hope; perhaps through each other the soldiers can defeat this crippling alienation. Paul frequently narrates with the first-person plural of "we," emphasizing their unity. The soldiers also bond in the common latrines and in line for food.
Despite this unity, each soldier is ultimately imprisoned in his own head (note Kropp's outburst when they leave Kemmerich) and detached from his fellow soldiers. This explains why, even during Paul's harshest views of war and Germany, his tone is oddly flat. The war has desensitized him, hardened him to its horrors, and he mentions almost in passing that nearly half his company was killed or wounded in recent fighting. The competition for Kemmerich's boots underlines this desensitization. In the constant face of death, even a friend's death seems less important than the fate of his expensive boots (or his watch, or his other possessions that the orderlies will probably steal).
The war affects the men in subtler ways, too. Aside from their sleeplessness and hunger, the soldiers, long removed from society, have become animalistic. Not only do they eat as if out of troughs, they go to the bathroom in communal outdoor latrines--which Paul deems better than any "palatial white-tiled 'convenience.'" Although he describes the outdoor experience as tranquil and natural, one gets the sense that the men are becoming more primitive through the war experience.
Chapter 2 Summary:
Paul thinks about his unfinished play and poems at home. Sometimes he works on it, as do other soldiers on their own writing, but he no longer comprehends it; the young soldier's past life is forgotten the moment he enlists in the war. The older men, however, have a strong enough background that cannot be destroyed. Despite their lack of a past and inability to think beyond the war, the young men are "not often sad." Paul defends Müller's pragmatism in wanting Kemmerich's boots; if Kemmerich could use them, Müller would never consider taking them.
Paul describes how the boys were different when they enlisted. Twenty young men with no plans for the future proudly and patriotically enlisted. Their ten-week training prepared them for subservience to military authority. Their class was sent out among various platoons; Paul, Kropp, Müller, and Kemmerich joined No. 9 platoon under the disciplinarian Corporal Himmelstoss. The Corporal immediately disliked Paul and some of his friends, recognizing some defiance in them, and punished them with arduous tasks. Still, the training prepared them well; had they not had it so rough, Paul believes they would have gone mad in the trenches. They also developed the "finest thing that arose out of the war--comradeship."
Paul sits with Kemmerich, who now knows that his leg has been amputated. Paul tries to cheer him up, but Kemmerich is convinced he will die, and he tells Paul to give Müller his boots. Paul has seen friends die before, but his growing up with Kemmerich makes this harder. Paul believes the boys look like powerful soldiers in uniform, but like children when naked. Kemmerich cries for an hour, saying nothing. Then he gurgles, and Paul goes for help. The orderlies are not helpful, and when they return, Kemmerich has died. Paul collects his things and they remove the body to free up the bed for more wounded. Paul runs home, feeling connected to the earth and full of life. He gives Müller the boots. Müller gives him some saveloy (sausage).
Paul relates the utter alienation of the young soldier; he does not have a deep history to think back on, and now the future seems out of reach. Curiously, despite being caught in this no-man's-land between the past and future, Paul says the soldiers are "not often sad." They dull themselves even to depression, for allowing the natural feelings of sadness in such an environment is tantamount to outright surrender. Likewise, the doctor who is unhelpful with Kemmerich similarly shuts off his feelings; he has already amputated too many legs today, and to deal with one more dying man would be too much.
(As an additional note, the word "no-man's-land," which dates back to the 14th century, took on greater significance in the trench warfare of WWI. The space between enemy trenches--"no-man's-land"--was bitterly contested ground, and it was considered a major victory if one side advanced even a few yards per month.)
We also see more insight into how Germany molds soldiers and why Paul and the others are so alienated. The process relies heavily on nationalism and the assumption that young Germans will do anything for their country. After the military recruits soldiers when they are at their most patriotic and willing (i.e., before they have seen war), it quickly breaks their will in training. The men become subservient to authority, a necessity for war. Otherwise, not only would the men be unable to handle the rigors of war, as Paul notes, they might question more vociferously why they are fighting in the first place. Dehumanized, they accept their fates.
Paul also explains how the harsh conditions of war seem to eliminate sympathy when, in fact, the men must often simply be pragmatic. Müller wants the boots only if Kemmerich is unable to use them, not at the expense of his friend's life. The only unsympathetic people in the war, it seems, are those who do not fight and have not undergone the same trials of brotherhood: the orderlies, the cook, the higher-ranking men, and the nationalists at home like Kantorek.
Indeed, Paul gives credit to the "finest thing that arose out of the war--comradeship." Whatever does not kill the men only serves to bring them closer. This closeness is why Paul reacts so strongly at the end of the chapter. His lifelong friend's death inspires him to embrace life, if temporarily. One might argue he skips along because he is happy he has avoided Kemmerich's fate (he specifically comments on the suppleness of his limbs and the strength of his joints, a contrast to the amputated Kemmerich). One may also view his elation as a tribute to his friend whose death has inspired Paul to embrace life. Likewise, Müller's offer of the saveloy is his way of expressing thanks (and sympathy) not only to Paul, but also to Kemmerich.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Twenty-five younger men arrive as reinforcements. Paul and his friends feel like mature veterans. Kat shows one of the recruits, along with Paul and some others, a tub of beans he acquired by bribing the cook. The beans are a precious commodity (turnips are the military staple). He gives some to the recruit and tells him next time to give him some tobacco in return. Paul believes every company has one or two resourceful people, but Kat, a cobbler by trade, is the smartest he knows. Paul is glad to be his friend, and tells a story to illustrate his strength as a leader. One night, bunking in a small, ravaged factory, Kat finds straw for the men to sleep on. But the men are hungry and have no food, so Kat goes off again and returns with bread and horse-flesh without providing an explanation. He oversees the cooking of the meat--he has a frying-pan, salt, and fat. Paul thinks Kat's sixth sense for locating food is his special talent.
One day, Kat and Kropp get in an argument over the war as they rest from an hour's worth of drill (occasioned by Tjaden's not saluting a major properly). Kat believes the war would be over if leaders gave all the participants "the same grub and the same pay," as he says in a rhyme. Kropp believes the leaders of each country should fight each other in an arena to settle the war; the "wrong" people currently do the fighting.
Paul describes the barracks and drill instruction. Above, a German airplane is shot down in a dogfight, settling a bet between Kropp and Kat. The men hypothesize that military men become disciplinarian bullies once they rise in rank. Kat believes that the power balances in the military are reflective of how "man is essentially a beast." Tjaden approaches and says Himmelstoss is coming up to the front. Tjaden especially hates the Corporal because of his cruel solution for Tjaden's bed-wetting problem, which he attributed to laziness: he made him alternate with another bed-wetter sleeping in the top and bottom bunk.
Paul remembers how on the day before he and his friends left for the front, they had plotted to gain revenge against Himmelstoss. They ambushed him as he returned from his nightly pub excursion. Trapping him in a bed-cover, they knocked him down, pulled down his trousers, and whipped him in turn. Finally, Haie, the most violent of all, punched him a couple of times before letting him go.
Paul says he "believe[s]" Kat is a cobbler; his vagueness shows how disconnected the men are from civilian life. Not only do they not know much about each other (except for those they knew prior to the war, of course), their past lives hardly influence their behavior in the military. Kat's being a cobbler, for instance, "hasn't anything to do" with his uncanny ability to make shrewd trades and find valuable items. What his middle-class job might influence is his somewhat Communist idea that if all men were given equal allowances, there would be no war. This Communist bent fits with his actions; he operates outside of a monetary system, instead acquiring things through bartering.
Kropp humorously voices in his vision of a fight between leaders what Paul has been suggesting: that the youth have been exploited as cannon fodder while their leaders--those who truly desire the war--remain out of harm's way. In their ambush of Himmelstoss, we see how the soldiers react to the unjust designations of power in the military. The powerful world leaders who wage the war from the safety of their offices and bunkers are as much the boys' target as is the disciplinarian Himmelstoss.
Indeed, Kat relates the entire climate of military power to the battles in the animal kingdom, and their attack on Himmelstoss is similarly animalistic. Kat's comment is important because not only are the front-line soldiers reduced to animalism in the military--we have already seen them eat and use the latrines like animals--but so are their leaders. The leaders are simply at the top of the food chain.
Again, what looks like unsympathetic behavior--Kat and Kropp's betting over which airplane will defeat the other--is necessary to desensitize them to the loss of life. The bet turns their attention to the bottle of beer at stake; without this, they would have to recognize that a fellow countryman has just met his grisly death.