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.