All Quiet on the Western Front Summary

Introduction

All Quiet on the Western Front

The rapid popular success of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel after it appeared in January, 1929, attracted special attention from the political parties vying for ascendancy in Germany’s Weimar Republic. Reviews by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists ridiculed the novel as unauthentic, the work of an imaginative Jew intent on pulling down the ideal of heroism. German Marxists judged Remarque as ideologically noncommittal and insufficiently critical of the war it depicted. In Great Britain and Australia, criticism of All Quiet on the Western Front followed similar ideological lines.

In the United States Little, Brown published a version of All Quiet on the Western Front from which passages mentioning latrines and a scene of sexual encounter in a hospital were removed. This edition, which also softened the book’s raw language, was a Book-of-the-Month Club choice in 1929. The first unexpurgated American edition of the novel did not appear until 1975.

In 1930 an American film company, Universal Pictures, adapted All Quiet on the Western Front to the screen; both the film and its director, Lewis Milestone, won Academy Awards. When the film opened in Berlin, Germany, Joseph Goebbels led a group of Hitler Youth in a violent demonstration. Afterward the Weimar government found reasons to banish the film from Germany on aesthetic grounds. Three years later, after Hitler took power, the National Socialist government banned the novel from the country as well.

In a silent film version that was adapted for French-speaking audiences, scenes depicting the killing of a French soldier and a gathering of German soldiers and French women were removed. When the film was rereleased in the United States in 1938, an anti-Nazi prologue was added.

All Quiet on the Western Front Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

All Quiet on the Western Front earned Remarque international popularity and established his writing career on firm financial and literary foundations. By the time of his death in 1970, perhaps fifty million copies of the novel had been sold and it had been translated into fifty-five languages. In the 1990’s, it was still widely regarded by many readers and critics as the greatest war novel of the twentieth century. Others ranked it with several very different, but esteemed, German war novels, such as Ernst Jünger’s In Stahlgewittern (1920; Storm of Steel, 1975), Fritz von Unruh’s Der Opfergang (1919; Way of Sacrifice, 1928), and Ludwig Renn’s Krieg (1928; War, 1928).

All Quiet on the Western Front was Remarque’s therapy for the depression and sense of desperation that had plagued him since World War I. It is an unconventional work in several ways. It is episodic, almost documentary or diary-like in nature, and it lacks a consistent plot. The narrator and principal character, Paul Baumer, is a young German soldier who serves on the Western Front. A second narrator is introduced only at the end to announce Baumer’s death.

Baumer’s narration, Remarque confirmed later in an interview, provides a worm’s-eye view of war—the view of one common soldier and his comrades’ physical and psychological trials imposed by their horrific experiences. It is not a literal work. Scenes Baumer describes are not found in factual guides to battlefields, with their precise designations of troop positions. Remarque, in fact, was criticized for Baumer’s failure to be just that specific. Literal-minded criticism, however, misses the point. All Quiet on the Western Front is not Baumer’s description of war as what occurred in various places at specific times but describes war as a condition. Like the art that Remarque admired and later collected, All Quiet on the Western Front is impressionistic.

The novel consists of twelve brief chapters, which in the original version amount to only 288 pages. In each chapter, Baumer leads the reader along his descent into hell. Young and idealistic, he is inspired by a teacher’s patriotic exhortations to enlist. The shock of basic training is worsened by a sadistic drill sergeant, and the shocks grow more frequent and profound with his transfer to the front, to the ghastliness of trench warfare, and the influence of veterans for whom the sole value was survival. Baumer’s recording of patrols, attacks and counterattacks, gassings, artillery barrages, madness, desertion, dead and wounded comrades, hospitals, food, rats, and worse are narrated with laconic fatalism as he too becomes preoccupied with survival.

The narration is often “we” rather than “I.” Baumer’s comrades—such as Tjaden, the peat digger, Detering, the peasant, and Katczinsky, the unphilosophical veteran who watches over Baumer and younger soldiers as might a parent—are deftly sketched as working-class victims of Prussian officialdom. The murderous government is represented by its lowest social orders: Kantorek, the teacher, and Himmelstoss, the postman. Baumer and his comrades are all doomed. Remarque poignantly and subtly highlights this fact, successively describing a dying man’s boots, scenes of beauty, the troop’s bumbling plunder, bashful sex briefly managed behind the front, and Baumer’s home leave, which demonstrates to him that his experiences are beyond civilian comprehension. Remarque also employs contrasting, self-explanatory symbols: birds singing on the battlefield, cackling geese along a route of march, innocent horses wounded or slaughtered by artillery fire, the earth as a protecting mother, blossoms, and butterflies—the beauty Baumer is reaching for when shot dead.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a truthful novel but not a documentary or a memoir. Remarque’s characters and materials are well handled, and his vision of war as a mirror of the human condition engages readers with its authenticity.

All Quiet on the Western Front Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Paul Bäumer is a young enlisted soldier. His classmates in school had been cajoled into joining the service by a teacher. Classmate Josef Behm, who had resisted enlistment, ironically is the first to die. For Bäumer, resources in the field are more important than people. With his comrades, he has access to plentiful food because those soldiers for whom the food was meant are now either in the hospital, wounded in combat, or in mass graves. The situation is worth rejoicing over.

World War I is characterized by trench warfare. Soldiers hold their own lines while periodically attempting to take the trenches of the other side or to avoid having their own trenches taken. Franz Kemmerich dies of gangrene after his leg is removed. His soft boots go to Müller, who had eyed them even before Kemmerich died. Müller is shot in the belly by a tracer bullet, and his boots go to Bäumer, who, in turn, promises them to Tjaden if he dies before him. The boots matter, and the death of individuals does not.

Kantorek, the comrades’ former literature teacher and now their comrade, refers to Bäumer’s generation as the iron youth; reality consists of death and suffering. Schoolbooks report events at a political level, where emperors need to make a name for themselves by an impressive war or two and where the ideals of a country must seek fulfillment. Reality, on the other hand, dehumanizes and trivializes, and turns humans into hospital and medical classifications: belly-shot cases; spinal injuries; head shots; amputees; jaw-shot cases; gas diseases; shots into noses, ears, and necks; blindness injuries; lung shots; hip injuries; joint shots; kidney hits; testicle shots; belly hits; dripping puss; open intestines; and the bomb craters within the psyches of soldiers.

Bäumer is on furlough, and an acquaintance points out to him that he fails to see the larger connections. The acquaintance advises Bäumer to stop the trench warfare, to kick out the fellows on the other side, and to get this thing over with. Bäumer’s mother’s concern is with the sufficient supply of food to the soldiers. His father wants to hear heroic tales. These requests all lead to Bäumer’s alienation from life at home. He wonders whether he should tell the folks back home about finding gassed enemy soldiers in their trenches, blue-faced and poses betraying how they looked before the gas extinguished their lives. Home front and war front present such stark contrasts that Bäumer cannot integrate them into one experience. As the war’s madness increases in reality, home fades into alienation for Bäumer.

An older comrade, Detering, experiences this cognitive dissonance differently. Hearing that cherries are ripe, this farmer simply leaves the battlefield. The reality of home wins over the reality of battle. He is not deceptive, for he does not escape to another country; he simply attempts to go to his home in Germany. He runs into military police and—because judges at courts-martial do not grasp such cognitive dissonances—will suffer execution, in all probability.

Another key experience is the enemy. After his furlough, Bäumer spends some time guarding Russian POWs. He reflects on this experience, thinking how someone’s order had made the Russians his enemies; another order could turn them into friends. He sees the Russians as people, in a vision that would make wars impossible.

Having just returned from furlough, Bäumer volunteers to reconnoiter enemy territory. Lost in the dark and unclear about the proper directions, he ducks into a bomb crater. With shots and the sounds of attacking enemy troops, he cannot move, and he hopes to be rescued by his own side’s counterattack. However, the German side does not advance, and an enemy soldier jumps into the bomb crater. Bäumer had anticipated this event and had gone through the procedures several times in his mind: Stab the soldier quickly, effectively, and with little noise. He proceeds to enact that scenario successfully, but he then faces a dying French soldier, whom he tries to succor—without success. The young soldier dies.

Bäumer sees the soldier’s identification and learns that he is Gérard Duval, typesetter. Bäumer swears that, for the sake of that young person from the other side, he will return to tell all about the sheer madness of war. This resolution fades when he returns to his own side later.

No soldier is able to make sense of the war as a rational enterprise, and most are convinced that someone is getting wealthy by it. However, the soldiers do not know where to place agency for the war; even the visiting emperor seems caught in the chain of events, unable to control them. Corporal Himmelstoss’s name, broken down, is rather telling, evoking some sense to the acts of war: Stoss means “thrust,” something the enemy might engage in. Gegenstoss means “counterthrust,” something one might engage in when one responds to an enemy’s thrust. Himmelstoss means “heaven thrust.”

The soldiers’ superior, Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky, and Bäumer are in the hospital. They hear a man singing hymns until his death rattle shuts him up—so much for self-administered extreme unction. The two go to a Catholic hospital, Kat because he is feverish and Bäumer because he simulates fever so the two can remain together. Early in the morning, the nuns pray in the hallway, leaving the doors open to the sickrooms. The soldiers scream for closed doors, for stopping the prayers, and for permission to continue sleeping. Bäumer finally pitches a bottle into the hallway, splintering the glass into hundreds of shards. This stops the prayers; it also starts an inquiry into the identity of the culprit. Josef Hamacher takes the blame because, he says, he has a Jagdschein (a hunting license—a certificate of mental illness). With such a diagnosis, he claims to be able to do anything without repercussion.

Other episodes show the clash of values in an insane world. Berger, a soldier, seeks to euthanize an injured dog. Berger dies in the attempt. Young recruits appear at the front to die; a single pilot shoots a couple of battalions of these young soldiers, unprepared as the youth are. Soldiers are suffering bloody colic while factory owners in Germany become wealthier.

The war becomes increasingly one-sided as German soldiers are outgunned and overpowered by newly arriving tanks. They also are outdone by fresh, well-fed U.S. and British troops and are hunted by a great number of enemy planes, which outnumber German planes five to one.

Large-scale enmities are lost in the small-scale use of people. Officers have brothels to keep them happy; soldiers find French women who are so hungry that they sell sex for food. Civilization and values break down ubiquitously, but these breakdowns define normalcy. Mittelstaedt, the trainer of conscripted Kantorek, the literature teacher, delights in abusing Kantorek to get even for in-school insults. Himmelstoss is abusive as a training sergeant because his abuse ensures that he will not be sent to frontline duty—until he manages to have the son of a political leader among his recruits, a recruit who ensures that Himmelstoss is sent to the front. There, he runs into Bäumer and his comrades, who are all itching to get even with Himmelstoss by abusing him in various ways.

Eventually, Bäumer’s classmates, all of his comrades, are all killed, and only he remains. Bäumer, too, soon dies. His body is on the ground, appearing to sleep, but Bäumer is dead. It appears that he had not tortured himself for very long. His face has a collected expression as though he is almost content with the way things had turned out. He had finally died, as much from despair as from gunshot. He had died on a day when military reports had indicated that on the western front all is quiet, that there is “nothing new” (nichts neues) to report. Another death is not extraordinary.

All Quiet on the Western Front Summary

Part I Summary

Part I—Behind the Lines
All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a young German foot soldier, Paul Baumer, during the...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Part II Summary

Part II—On Leave
After the battle, Paul receives leave to visit home. His friends Kropp and Kat see him off, and Paul starts his...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Part III Summary

Part III—The Return to the Front
After Paul's return to the front, he feels himself more strongly attached to his friends than ever....

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Part IV Summary

Part IV—Conclusion
It is now the autumn of 1918. The war is winding down and Paul, recovering from a gas attack, knows that the...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

All Quiet on the Western Front Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Preface

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

Chapter 1

Nineteen-year-old Paul Baümer is the narrator of this story, and he is in the army with three of his classmates, who are also nineteen. Albert Kropp is the “clearest thinker” among them and a lance-corporal; Müller is still thinking about school and physics formulas; Leer has a full beard and an eye for the ladies. They...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

Paul’s former world—the world of schoolbooks, thinking, and being creative—is disconnected from his present world. The older men have established lives with which they can reconnect once the war is over; the young men, though, have nothing but family and a few former passions with which to connect once they return to civilian life. They had not “taken root,” so they have nothing that anchors them: “We have become a wasteland.” They enlisted with romantic notions about serving and fighting for their country; they learned that the formalities of the military are far more important than they should be. Shining boots and marching in step and standing at attention are all that matter. Paul’s class of twenty volunteer...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Paul’s regiment gets reinforcements. The new group of soldiers is settling in after receiving their gas masks and coffee. Many of them are young; Paul and his group are practically veterans compared to them. The new soldiers have been eating poorly and are hungry. They are overjoyed at the prospect of the beef and beans Katczinsky has bartered from Ginger (for three pieces of parachute silk) and stashed away for his own bartering. Next time the recruits will trade him something for a portion of the food.

Katczinsky (Kat) is an intuitive man who is invaluable to the men around him. When they find themselves in a warehouse with wire netting attached to wood beams as their beds, Kat finds them straw. When they are hungry...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

The unit goes closer to the battle for “wiring fatigue.” They are packed into military trucks, lurching in the dark toward the front lines, though they will not actually be engaging in the battle. As a flock of geese flies overhead in the dark, Paul and Katczinsky exchange glances. They will be having goose for dinner tonight. The new recruits are visibly nervous, but the others show no nerves. As the ammunition lands, Kat explains how to tell what it is. The English start firing, some of it near them. They change from being men on a mission to being men on the alert. They are tensed and ready, all senses attuned to their surroundings. There is a basic instinct for self-preservation that causes men to drop to the dirt: “To no...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

The soldiers are infested with lice and kill them by picking them off their clothes and sizzling them to death over a candle. It is a mindless task, and the men are preoccupied with the latest news. The rumor is true: Himmelstoss has arrived. They ponder what they will say to their former nemesis, and then talk to turns to the future. The idea of the war being over is almost too much to comprehend, but Katczinsky knows he will go home to his wife and children. Haie may, inexplicably to the others, stay in the army; he claims that digging trenches is better than digging peat. If there is no war, the army will at least provide him a decent living with free time in town in the evenings. Tjaden wants only to spend his time getting...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

It is summer, and Paul’s unit goes back to the battlefront several days earlier than planned. On the way, they see more than a hundred freshly made coffins stacked and waiting. The men joke, but they know for whom the coffins have been made. The English have fortified their position; however, their own artillery is so worn out that many of their own shells are landing in their trenches. Two men were injured by this friendly fire. The soldiers are discouraged and understand that they depend on chance for their continued survival. Huge, feasting rats have taken over the trenches, and the men kill them as best they can. Their rations of rum and Edamer cheese are delicious but signal something ominous ahead of them.

Days...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

The Second Company needs more than a hundred new soldiers to replace those they lost. The group is relaxing, and even Himmelstoss tries to join the camaraderie. Paul and most of the others are willing to give him grace because he brought Haie to them after he was wounded. Tjaden is still not friendly until Himmelstoss takes over the cook’s duty and gives the men fine food and gifts. They have rest and plenty of food, the two things every soldier needs to be content. The experiences of the battlefield do not go away; however, they cannot afford to dwell on them. It seems as if the war is not on their minds at all, but in fact it never goes away.

They are staying in houses near a canal—on the other side of which are...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Paul is back at the camp where he and his classmates were prepared by Himmelstoss and others for the realities of war. It is not the same and he knows virtually no one. When he is not involved in drills, Paul enjoys the beauty of the scenery and relaxes.

Next to the training camp, separated by a wire fence, is a Russian prison camp. They are in even worse shape than the Germans are. They pick through the miserable leftovers in the garbage tins along the fence. While Paul and his fellow soldiers feel deprived, these prisoners are suffering the crippling effects of deprivation. These Russians are always looking for a trade, and they do have good boots to barter. Several loaves of army bread or perhaps one loaf and a small...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

When Paul returns to join his battalion, he is given provisions and instructions on how to find his unit. They are now a regiment that is sent to “wherever it is hottest.” Losses have been heavy, he hears, and no one has news for him of Katczinsky or Albert Kropp. Paul eventually finds the command center and waits for his group to join him; they are expected in two days. When the weary and dispirited troops arrive, Paul pushes through them looking for his friends. He finds Kat, Kropp, Müller, and Tjaden and settles in next to them. He shares his potato cakes and jam; they tell him they may be heading to Russia to fight.

They spend days polishing and being inspected; the rumor is that the Kaiser is coming to review...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Paul and seven others are assigned to guard an abandoned village near a supply dump. They make the most of this opportunity and create “an idyll of eating and sleeping.” The village has been shelled regularly, but there is plenty for these deprived soldiers to scavenge. They find mattresses, bedding, eggs, butter, and two young pigs. One of the houses has everything a cook would need, and several of the men scour nearby fields for fresh vegetables. Cooking begins, but the smoke is visible to the observation balloons. They are now a target, so they grab the food and head for their dugout shelter. Their meal goes on as planned. For the next two weeks life is easy and the men take advantage of their access to supplies. Soon they...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Time passes and the only change, in addition to the seasons, is the move from the front to waiting to return to the front. What used to be is no more for either the soldiers or for the civilians. What used to matter, things like education and breeding, no longer matter. “Now we are all melted down," says the narrator, "and all bear the same stamp.”

Energy must be conserved, so the only important things are those necessary to sustain and maintain life. Everything else is dormant, and all is well until there is a yearning for something more. Those are the moments when the soldiers are reminded that they are more than animals and that the hard shell of superficiality is not real. Things are starting to fall apart...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Another summer is gone and another autumn has arrived. Not many who fought from the beginning, the old ones, are left; Paul is the only one of his seven classmates to survive. All around him there are rumors of peace and treaties, but there have been such rumors before. Peace must come after such rumors or there will be consequences. If the war does not end soon, Paul believes there will be a revolution.

Paul is relaxing while on two weeks of rest because he swallowed a little gas. He hungers for many things—is greedy for home and life and freedom—but has no goals for his future. He reflects that if the war had ended two years earlier, the soldiers may have had a chance to be something; they might have “unleashed...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear