The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Paul conveys to the reader the profound alienation of the young WWI soldier. For Paul, especially, this alienation emerges in two ways. For one, he is caught in a virtual no-man's-land in his life. He feels dislocated from his past, but can conceive of no possible future for himself. His former schooling seems useless, and he cannot imagine reentering the civilian world in any kind of occupation.
The more terrifying part of his and the typical soldier's alienation, however, is in the way Paul must dull his feelings. Paul frequently explains that soldiers must shut off their emotions, or else go insane from the ravages of war. Paul's tone is often curiously flat when describing even the deaths of close friends. His alienation extends to his family. Paul refuses to allow himself to get too close to his dying mother, let alone the rest of his family and others from home. He feels betrayed by his elders, who have pushed Paul and the German youth into fighting for a cause they have no stake in.
The saving grace for Paul is that he does bond with his fellow soldiers--at least while they are alive. Camaraderie, to him, is the one good thing that has come out of the war, and his intimacy with Kat as the two cook a goose borders on the homoerotic.
Paul also exhibits increasingly anti-nationalistic sentiments as the novel progresses, and his recognition of the arbitrariness of war allows him to grow closer to the Russians in an adjacent prison camp, and to the Frenchman he kills in a shell-hole.
Paul occasionally comments on the impotence of words in describing the brutality of war. He also laments how civilians will never be able to understand the soldier's plight. We may assume that Remarque felt the same way, but decided that by writing about WWI, he might overturn these theories and relate his own alienated war experiences.
Although Kantorek, the former schoolteacher of Paul and his friends, figures in only one present-tense scene, he casts a long shadow over the novel. He represents nationalism, the ideology of unswerving dedication to one's own country that swept Europe before and during WWI, at its worst. His patriotic sentiments and bullying forced Paul and his classmates--what he proudly calls the "'Iron Youth'"--into volunteering for the war. Paul gains some measure of revenge when he sees that Kantorek has been enlisted in the war; at least Kantorek must now fight and possibly die for the war he has helped promote.
Like Kantorek, Himmelstoss is in just a few scenes, but he is an important representative figure. As Paul's friends see it, Himmelstoss epitomizes the way men with little power otherwise--Himmelstoss was a postman before the war--exploit whatever power they gain in the military. A ruthless disciplinarian in the training platoon Paul and his classmates originally joined, Himmelstoss delights in humiliating the inferior-ranking soldiers, especially Tjaden. However, even a coward like Himmelstoss can be redeemed by the camaraderie of war; after he is brought up to fight and has his first experience in the trenches, he makes up with the men he previously punished and insulted.
Kat, as he is known, is the wise, 40-year-old unofficial leader of Paul's company. A peacetime cobbler, Kat has a knack for making shrewd trades and scrounging up food in seemingly impossible situations. He also seems to have some sympathy with Communism, although this is not well developed in the novel. Though half his age, Paul seems to be closest with Kat of all the soldiers.
Dying of cancer, Paul's mother awakens some dormant emotions in Paul, but he ultimately represses them, unable to deal with both his own imminent death and hers. She is highly maternal, dispensing advice to Paul about the war that is both caring and naïve.
Described by Paul as the "clearest thinker" of his former classmates, Kropp is one of Paul's oldest and closest friends. Paul is fiercely loyal to him, faking illness so he can stay with Kropp when his leg is wounded.
A 19-year-old skinny locksmith, Tjaden is most notable for his vendetta against Himmelstoss, who unfairly punished Tjaden's for his bed-wetting problem in training camp.
A married peasant farmer, Detering has the most compelling reasons to return home. He also loves animals and is upset that horses are used in a human war.
A physics-inclined academic from Paul's class, Müller appears crass for wanting the dying Kemmerich's boots, but he is only pragmatic, as all soldiers are.
Lusty and sexually mature (he was the first to lose his virginity in the boys' class), Leer leads the sexual charges in the novel.
A large 19-year-old peat-digger.
A wounded soldier the boys visit whose expensive boots are passed around throughout the novel when its wearer dies.
A French soldier Paul stabs in a shell-hole but must stay with for hours as the man dies. Paul later discovers that Duval is a printer and has a wife and daughter.
One of the three Frenchwomen the boys visit across the canal, the brunette loses interest in Paul when he tells her he is going on leave; she is aroused only when he is in danger of entering combat.
Lewandowski: The oldest soldier in the Catholic Hospital, the other patients help Lewandowski arrange a conjugal visit with his wife.
The one student who openly did not want to join the war, Behm was bullied into it by Kantorek and got killed almost immediately.
A former classmate of Paul's, Mittlestaedt ends up in charge of Kantorek and gleefully lords his power over his former schoolteacher.
The cowardly and stingy cook of Paul's company at the start of the novel.