First and foremost, All Quiet on the Western Front is realistic because it refuses to glorify war. It makes no attempt to justify Germany’s part in World War I, or anyone else’s, for that matter.
The brutality of World War I warfare is well chronicled in many works: the advent of the machine gun, the barbed wire, miles and miles of trenches. In the book, the enemy is usually faceless; heard but not seen, feared but not known. The author, however, breaks the pattern in chapter nine when he has Baumer kill a Frenchman in a shell-hole. This time, instead of shooting from afar, Baumer kills someone with his own hands. As the battle goes on around them, Paul and the mortally wounded Frenchman wait out the night in the shell-hole. Paul has to listen to the man slowly die—it takes hours. He begins to feel regret. “These hours . . . the gurgling starts again—but how slowly a man dies!” And later, “But every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me.”
It is not just the battlefield that illustrates the horror of war in All Quiet on the Western Front. When the story’s protagonist, Paul Baumer, goes home on leave, he visits the mother of a friend from his unit who was killed at the front. Baumer writes: “This quaking, sobbing woman who shakes me and cries out on me: ‘Why are you living then, when he is dead?’”
Then when Baumer prepares to leave home and head back to the front, he can barely stand to talk to his own mother: “. . . now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end.” The war has destroyed his relationship with everyone except the soldiers he serves with.