The book All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque contains many instances of symbolism. The most prominent, I believe, is Kemmerich’s boots which symbolize the cheapness of life.
The common mindset was that the dead shouldn’t need their possessions if someone else who is alive could use it. The soldiers who inherit the boots view them as their prized possession. During the war most people’s boots were worn and barely considered useable which symbolized how poor and broken the soldiers were from the war. Kemmerich’s boots were better than anyone else’s and since he now only had one leg, everyone knew that he would never need them again. When Müller makes an unsympathetic comment Remarque defends the character by writing “Though Müller would be delighted to have Kemmerich’s boots, he is really quite sympathetic as another who could not bear to think of such a thing for grief. He merely sees things clearly. Were Kemmerich able to make any use of the boots, then Müller would rather go bare-foot over barbed wire than scheme how to get a hold of them. But as it is the boots are quite inappropriate to Kemmerich’s circumstances, whereas Müller can make good use of them. Kemmerich will die; it is immaterial who gets them. Why then, should Müller not succeed to them? He has more right than a hospital orderly. When Kemmerich is dead it will be too late. Therefore Müller is already on the watch. We have lost all sense of other considerations, because they are artificial. Only the facts are real and important for us. And good boots are scarce”(20). All of them have come to an understanding that since Kemmerich won’t need the boots anymore that they will now just be going to waste.
The inheritance of the boots overshadow the recent death of their comrade. The soldiers think more about what they will receive as a benefit of their friend’s death, rather than the death itself. Müller keeps suggesting that he wants the boots, inconsiderately mentioning it in front of kemmerich who does not yet know that he is dying. He brings it up again later and says “They would fit me perfectly. In these boots I get blister after blister. Do you think he will last till tomorrow after drill? If he passes out in the night we know where the boots—” (17) Müller is devaluing the death of Kemmerich and by referring to his gain from his friends death. After when he claimed them he was sad for his friend but overall was content with his new boots.
To the soldiers the boots seemed as if more long lasting and valuable than their lives. The first person who owned the boots we see in the book was Kemmerich who took them from a dead man a while back. They were his prized possession but when he died, Müller then claimed them. Müller was the next one of Paul’s class to die, he was shot to death while wearing the boots. Before he had died Müller told Paul that when he was gone he would want Paul to have to have them. Paul accounts what happened: “Müller is dead. Someone shot him point-blank in the stomach with a Verey light. He lived for half an hour, quite conscious, and in terrible pain. Before he died he handed over his pocket-book to me, and bequeathed me his boots — the same that he once inherited from Kemmerich. I wear them, for they fit me quite well. After me Tjaden will get them, I have promised them to him”(279). Shortly after Paul inherited the boots he was shot down in battle, and Each of them valued the boots more than their own lives.
The symbol shows that life is less durable than a good pair of boots, but they were also sort of like a heirloom from the dead people who had worn the boots before. The soldiers, while forced to put up a facade pretending to be without feelings, loved and missed their fallen comrades. Although we are constantly reminded that human life is fragile and worthless to some, the relationships you make along the way are still important.