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Paul Baumer and his classmates enlist in Germany's army during World War I because their teachers have told them doing so was a noble act. At first, Paul and the others spend "wonderfully care-free hours." But when they watch Behm, crawling through No Man's Land, shot down before anyone could get him, Paul notes that they cannot blame Kantorek, their former schoolmaster and a "little marinet" who thought he was acting for the best:
The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a great insight and a more human wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs....
We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.
In the battlefields, Paul notes,
Kantorek would say that we stood on the threshold of life. And so it would seem...We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land.
The cries of the wounded war horses fills Paul and the others with horror. He describes it as
...the moaning of the world, it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning.
The soldiers worry about what life will be like for them when they return to their homes. Kropp says,
"...Two years of shells and bombs--a man won't peel that off as easy as a sock."
Paul narrates their disillusion,
...We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world and we had to shoot it to pieces....We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.
Further, he reflects,
A little soldier...with the big boots and the shut heart, who marches because he is wearing big boots, and has forgotten all else but marching.
...stillness is the reason why these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow--a vast, inapprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires--but they return not.
We could never regain the old intimacy with those scenes...I believe we are lost.
Paul finally receives leave and returns home. Alone, he sits in his room:
...I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breadth of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait.
...life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death;--it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct.
We are little flames of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out.
The anguish of solitude rises up in me.
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