Eric Remarque's semi-autobiographical novel points to the sharp contrast between the rhetoric of war and the reality of it. Sent off to war by their idealistic schoolmaster, Kantorek, Paul Baumer and his young friends quickly become aware of the cruel reality of war, and lose their youthful innocence.
- Dillusionment with patriotism and the glorification of battle
Poet Wilfred Owen wrote of "the old lie: it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." Paul Baumer and his classmates have trusted their schoolmasters and others in authority. However, these men have let them down because instead of being guides to their maturation,
...the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs.
Baumer goes on to say that the first bombardment "broke in pieces" all that they have been taught. They witness the horrors of war, the amputations, the deaths--"the front isn't a parade-ground, " Paul narrates.
- The fragility of life
Perhaps the strongest example of the gossamer thread that holds a person between life and death for Paul is the injury of Franz Kemmerich, his boyhood friend. At first, it seems that Kemmerich just needs his leg amputated, but later he dies. With his death, Paul is devastated.
At the front a second time, Paul jumps into a fox hole that is not his and the French soldier suddenly appears, Paul stabs him. However, the soldier does not die immediately and Paul must watch him slowly die. This watch causes Paul great anguish, and he is emotionally affected by how easily one can die.
- The triviality of civilian life
After returning home on leave, Paul finds that he cannot relate to his family and the former life he has left. He appreciates that his mother asks him no questions, but his father wants him to tell about the front:
...he is curious in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I no longer have any contact with him.
His old German-master asks him how things are "out there":
Terrible, terrible, eh? Yes, it is dreadful, but we must carry on. And after all, you do at least get decent food out there, so I hear....
At home, Paul looks around at his books, books that ignited his spirit, but there is nothing left to this excitement because things of his old life have become trivial.
- The futility and destructiveness of war
Germany begins to lose the war, but the men must continue to fight. Paul has a sense of things falling apart as Detering finds a cherry tree and takes a branch with him as he heads home, going AWOL. Another soldier, Berger, jumps out of the foxhole to save a dog and is killed; Mueller is shot in the stomach and takes a half an hour to die. Everthing is "heroic and banal" Paul remarks.
With only Kat left as his friend, Paul carries him to the dressing station, but Kat is hit in his head before they arrive. With his death, Paul feels the destruction and uselessness of war. "Then I know nothing more," he narrates. Nothing has meaning without his friend; his efforts have been futile. Kat's death reminds Paul of the senselessness of war and its destructiveness to both body and soul.