The Greatest Loss of All: Soldiers’ Loss of Themselves in All Quiet on the Western Front
War is widely regarded as a time of devastation, death, and destruction. Many times, the brave souls that go nobly into war come out completely different, scarred and changed by the horrific events they have witnessed, if they survive. In All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Paul Baumer and his comrades experience just this, being degraded less than human, and disrupting connections to life at home, both major things almost every soldier loses to the battle. Throughout the war, the soldiers on the front experience extremely trying situations, causing them to fight for basic necessities, rely on primitive instincts, and become separated from normal life, adding to the destruction they face when fighting in the war.
Throughout the novel, the men on the front are constantly forced to battle for even the most fundamental of essentials, causing them to be reduced to below humans. The soldiers do not have everything a normal human wants or needs during a normal course of time, like basic necessities, and this causes them to be dehumanized. An example of this is when Paul recounts the scene of the German camp, depicting how little food there is to feed such a big army: “Everything gets eaten, notwithstanding, and if ever anyone is so well off as not to want all his share, there are a dozen others standing by ready to relieve him of it. Only the dregs that the ladle cannot reach are tipped out and thrown into the garbage tins,” (189). This quote shows how unbearably depleted the military’s food supply was, forcing soldiers to struggle for any food they can find, in order to prevent themselves from starving. When Bäumer talks about the “dregs that the ladle cannot reach” he is talking about the parts of the pot of food that contain edible material but are impossible to reach, saying that is the only part not eaten. Normal soldiers would typically need lots of food to replenish after going through the intense battles that becomes everyday, normal life for them after a long time. The stereotypical image of a soldier that is a strong, hearty man that is not afraid of anything, is quickly scrapped, as these weak frail soldiers are fighting for any little piece of remaining food they can get. By having to battle for such a basic human necessity, these soldiers in the camp are diminished to less than people. Another example is while Paul and his fellow soldiers are being heavily shelled when they are trying to make food for themselves and the building they are in continues to get heavily hit. During this, Paul tells of his experience in the building, saying: “Whenever I hear a shell coming I drop down on one knee with the pan and the pancakes, and duck behind the wall of a window. Immediately afterwards I am up again and going on with the frying…” (235). To put food over one’s own life in a tough situation shows the reality of the level of dehumanization these soldiers have reached. Paul is willing to risk his life and take cover only for a few seconds when a shell hits, just for a batch of pancakes that the soldiers are so desperate to eat, they are willing to risk their lives to get it. Overall, the soldiers’ frequent need to fight for the most essential of necessities to help them survive truly shows the amount they have lost to the war, emphasizing the devastation of the war.
Often in the novel, the soldiers find themselves in extremely tough situations, and must rely on their own basic instincts in order to survive. When Paul is describing what happens to the soldiers when they feel they are in danger, he says: “By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness. One cannot explain it. A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down. But had he not abandoned himself to the impulse he would now be a heap of mangled flesh. It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how,” (56). In this passage Paul tells how a man’s impulse takes over when he is in danger, and how often times it ends up saving their life. To do something consciously is to think about it before doing it, so to do something not consciously is to do something without thinking about it. This is what soldiers have to rely on to survive, as many times they don’t have time to think and react, and instead must rely on instinct. The primitive instincts that many of the soldiers rely heavily on to get them through everyday war shows the level of dehumanization that the soldiers experience. Another example is after Paul and his friends have collected some extra bread, he tells of how repulsive the rats in the trenches were, and how they often had to fight them off to remain in control of their own food supply: “After a few minutes we hear the first shuffling and tugging. It grows, now it is the sound of many little feet. When the torches switch on and every man strikes at the heap, which scatters with a rush,” (102-103). In this passage, Paul tells of how the soldiers must resort to using their primitive instincts to keep them alive, in this instance fighting off rats. With weapons found around their bunker, the soldiers fight off the rodents trying to steal their food. The soldiers literally take on the mentality to defend their food at all costs. This is done in a very primitive way, resembling animals fighting off a kill, showing the basic instincts they have resorted to in order to survive.
In the novel, the soldiers, being extremely accustomed to violent war on the front, lose contact with normal life at home. One example of this is shown when Paul goes back home on leave to visit his mother, he recalls a conversation between the two, saying: “‘Dear boy,’ says my mother softly. We were never very demonstrative in our family; poor folk who toil and are full of cares are not so. It is not their way to protest what they already know. When my mother says to me ‘dear boy,’ it means so much more than when another uses it,” (159-160). Paul, being virtually destroyed by the events he has seen at war, is very strongly affected by the words his mother uses, especially when she calls him ‘dear boy’. The words ‘dear boy’ are often used in an affectionate way, and Paul has not felt affection like that since leaving for the war, and after all of the traumatizing things he has seen, the love of his mother almost drives him to tears. Some of Paul’s innocence is also captured, as the words are used in a child-like manner. Another example of this is while he is narrating about his life as a soldier, Paul says: “First we are soldiers and afterwards, in a strange and shamefaced fashion, individual men as well,” (272). Many of the soldiers fighting in World War I, including Paul, became so accustomed to war during the four years it went on, knew nothing else except for how to kill and avoid being killed. This makes many of them soldiers before even themselves, as they don’t know what else they would do with their lives if they aren’t in war. World War I was the cause of much loss, and one thing many soldiers lost was a connection to normal civilian life at home, making them a part of the Lost Generation.
Throughout the novel, Remarque shows the soldiers as being dehumanized and becoming a part of The Lost Generation, caused by the horrible things they have seen during the duration of the war. Many soldiers are forced to resort to lower desires and using primitive instincts in order to avoid being killed by the enemy, or the war itself. The soldiers also experience the forming of a rift between life as a soldier, and life as a civilian, oftentimes to an irreversible point. In All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, the main character Paul Baumer, along with his fellow soldiers, experience this as they fight to survive one of the bloodiest wars in history, World War I. The soldiers that fight in this terrible war lose two crucial things that make them individual, their humanity and their connections at home. Even if the soldiers get away alive, one thing almost every single one lost during the war was themselves, as they all became dehumanized and lost contact with civilian life during such a destructive war.
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