In All Quiet on the Western Front, two themes that dominate the plot and complement each other are war and the "rites of passage." In literature, war often becomes the proving ground on which a youth is initiated into one of the rites of passage — as instances, Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929). Paul Baumer candidly relates his own initiation into war and, as typical of rites of passage, he gains knowledge from his experiences. He says that when he and his twenty classmates enlisted they "were still crammed full of vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also, an ideal almost romantic character"; ideals, of course, that are shattered by war's brutality as Baumer watches his classmates and comrades lose arms, legs, faces, sanity, and lives. Even when home on leave from the front, he poignantly realizes that he is isolated and alienated from his family and townspeople who can neither understand what he has experienced nor comprehend how his war experiences have changed him; indeed, he is almost eager to return to the front where his comrades are: "I belong to them and they to me, we all share the same fear and the same life." In a larger sense, too, Baumer's rites of initiation mirror the rites of his classmates and friends who share the same experiences, fears, and life.
(The entire section is 232 words.)
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Individual vs. Machine
The patriotism of war is a thing of the past, Remarque suggests, as the young recruits quickly learn about the reality of trench warfare. Paul Baumer, fresh from school at the beginning of the novel, is sent after skimpy but brutal basic training to the trenches in France. He quickly learns that living or dying has little to do with one's prowess as a soldier but more as a conditioned reflex. Since the Allies outgunned the Axis in artillery and machinery, the German youth took refuge in trenches that were no match for the kind of warfare waged. As more and more of his comrades are killed, Baumer sees that death comes from afar in the artillery shells and the bombs, and as the trenches offer less and less refuge from the other side's new tanks and airplanes and its better guns, survival becomes little more than a chance.
Thus, the theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the individual's struggle against forces beyond his control: technology, institutions, politics, social conventions, disease, and death. The soldiers become automata, trying to avoid death more than actually fighting. Rapid changes of scene take the reader to the front—sheltering from shell-fire in a cemetery, under gas attack, behind the lines—on leave to a Germany that cannot conceive of life at the front, into contact with Russian POWs, and to the hospital, where the consequences of war are among the severest and clearest. The increasingly condensed final chapters show the young German troops defeated in the field, clearly unable to win in the face of livelier and better fed...
(The entire section is 655 words.)