Paul Baumer is an innocent who enlists in the German army in World War I out of patriotism after his teacher, Kantorek, inspires him to do so. However, war turns out not to be at all heroic. Much of the novel depicts the horror and boredom of life in the rat-infested trenches as the men gravitate between coping with the mundane miseries of day-to-day living and the terror of attacks. On the battlefield, patriotism becomes a pointless concept against the reality of death:
While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded dying. While they taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.
An important interlude occurs when Paul comes home for leave and realizes the futility of trying to communicate his experience of trench warfare to civilians. Nobody behind the lines can comprehend the numbing disillusion of watching comrades die and understand the pointless waste the war is. He realizes that people like Kantorek who inspire young men to fight have no idea what they are doing.
In the end, Paul, already emptied out internally, dies. The boots that foreshadow death are passed on to him, indicating his time has come. Ironically, he dies while trying to reach for a butterfly, an emblem of beauty. The butterfly, like the young men in the trenches, is an innocent natural being unwittingly caught in a hell that is not natural, but senseless and manmade.
This antiwar novel strips away any idea that war is glorious or heroic.