A Spark of Humanity on the Desolate Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is a historical fiction novel written by Erich Maria Remarque in 1929. The story follows the life of a young German infantryman, Paul Baumer, and his experiences fighting trench warfare on the Western Front, between Germany and France, in the midst of World War I. Throughout the novel Paul and his friends-Stanislaus Katczinsky, Albert Kropp, Tjaden, Leer, Müller, Haie Westhus, and Detering – are constantly faced with the looming threats of gas attacks and artillery bombardments. They are forced to adapt to a harsh battlefield environment in order to survive. Paul often finds himself becoming a person he no longer recognizes, and begins to question his motives for fighting and the purpose of the war. However, despite the fierce fighting and squalid conditions, Baumer retains his humanity throughout the entire novel up until his death. This is demonstrated by Paul’s relationships with his friends, his mentorship of his fellow comrades, and his compassion towards enemy soldiers.

The friendships that Paul forms with the members of his regiment enable him to retain his humanity. Paul describes this comradery as “a strong, practical sense of esprit de corps, which in the field developed into the finest thing that arose out of the war” (Remarque 26). In the absence of Paul’s loved ones on the Western Front, Paul’s friends quickly become his surrogate family. In fact, one character, Katinsky, is able to serve as a mentor and role model the way Paul’s father never could. These relationships push Paul to care about people other than himself, and broaden his motives beyond the basic instinct of self-preservation. This is demonstrated when Katinsky is shot and Paul is quick to “jump up, eager to help him” (Remarque 288). Paul’s rush to aid his fallen comrade despite the danger which the enemy artillery presented to himself, is evidence that he is selfless and still values the preservation of human life.

However, Paul aids his fellow German comrades in addition to his close friends. He does his best to comfort them amid the scream of projectiles and cloud of swirling gas. Whether it be teaching them how to throw a grenade, put on their gas mask, or identify the sounds and types of artillery shells, Paul does what he can to give them a fighting chance at survival. When a new recruit buries his head in Paul’s lap, he consoles him saying “All over, kid! It’s all right this time . . . You’ll get used to it soon” (Remarque 60). To Paul, these young boys represent the innocence he once had before he went to fight, and he is desperate to preserve that innocence in any way he can. As they die, it makes him sick to see that “Their sharp, downy, dead faces have the awful expressionlessness of dead children” (Remarque 130). To Paul these soldiers are inexperienced boys whom he would desire to “take them by the arm and lead them away from here where they have no business to be.” (Remarque 130). He yearns to protect their innocence and to send them somewhere far away from the horrors of the Western Front.

Paul recognizes the human dignity inherent in all people, enemies as well as comrades, and as a result, treats enemy soldiers with compassion. While Paul is observing the Russian prisoners on his guard duty, he realizes the enemy that the Germans have been fighting are no different from himself. He asserts that “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends” (Remarque 192). Paul sees that his supposed enemies are human too, and he provides them with cigarettes and food whenever he can. Similarly, when Paul is lost behind enemy lines and out of fear stabs a French soldier in a mortar shell hole, he cares for the dying man, a printer named Gérard Duval, bringing him water and comforting him. Even after Duval’s death, Paul assures him that “I will write to your wife . . . I will tell her everything I have told you, she shall not suffer, I will help her, and your parents too, and your child” (Remarque 223). Paul’s humanity is clearly shown here as he feels remorse for an action which is supposedly his duty— killing an enemy soldier. He still feels an obligation to comfort the dead French soldier’s wife and to provide for his family at his own expense.

Even in the face of constant bombardments, offensives, and poor conditions present on the front, Paul is able to retain a sense of human decency up until his death at the end of the novel. Paul is able to convince the reader that even while living in such a desolate, inhuman place as the Western Front, it is still possible to preserve basic elements of human decency. While at points Paul thinks he has lost himself, he is always grounded by his humanity. This humanity manifests itself in his relationships with his friends, his devotion towards new recruits, and his kind treatment of both the Russian prisoners and the dying French soldier.