Why did the students join the army in All Quiet on the Western Front?

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Most of the students at Paul's school join the army in response to the zeal and patriotic enthusiasm surrounding the whole matter. This was led in no small part by Kantorek, the boys' teacher. The old school teacher is emblematic of the older generation of Germans who encouraged the young...

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Most of the students at Paul's school join the army in response to the zeal and patriotic enthusiasm surrounding the whole matter. This was led in no small part by Kantorek, the boys' teacher. The old school teacher is emblematic of the older generation of Germans who encouraged the young men, mere boys really, to fight for what they thought would be a righteous cause.

Remarque uses Kantorek as a symbolic representation of many men of this generation. There were many in Germany (but also in England, France, Russia, and Austria) who thought that the war would be short, relatively bloodless, and bring glory to their nation. They spouted the propaganda that would end up getting millions of others killed, while they stayed at home in relative safety.

Kantorek and other Germans his age likely remembered the Franco-Prussian War, which was fought about 45 years earlier. In this short conflict, Germany won a glorious victory. They seemed to think that this war would proceed the same way. Kantorek and others like him felt that they were doing their part for their country by convincing younger men to fight. We see at the beginning of the novel how effective they are in convincing the boys to enthusiastically enlist.

After experiencing the terror and brutality of combat, Paul is well aware of Kantorek's culpability. He sees Kantorek and those like him as being the ones responsible for so many deaths. As he comes to realize:

There were thousands of Kantoreks, all of whom were convinced that there was only one way of doing well, and that way theirs. And that is just why they let us down so badly. (1.47)

In the preface of the novel, Remarque declares that he does not set out to point fingers of blame. However, he clearly implicates the older generation, represented by Kantorek, for leading so many young men to their deaths.

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It is clear that the boys joined up at the intense urging of their schoolmaster, Kantorek; as well, the adults in their lives, such as their parents, all stressed the glory of joining up and the duty that the boys had to their country. It is telling that the first one to die, Joseph Behm, was the one who held out the longest from being convinced to join. The fact that Remarque makes this point is evidence that he believes the youths were falsely mislead into believing that the war was about defending the "Fatherland" and all of propaganda that the German government promoted. Instead, the boys led gruesome existences, followed by death, one by one. I would argue that this novel is not a coming of age novel in the classic sense of the term; instead, based on the fact that Paul Baumer repeatedly stresses that he and his friends had "no chance" at their lives, no chance to have a family, no chance to be in love, no chance at life, period, the novel's central message is that war strips young men of everything. They all die.

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All Quiet on the Western Front is a coming of age story of the youth of the 1910's. The students, Paul and his classmates, Muller, Kropp and Leer joined the army at the urging of their schoolmaster, Kantorek.  The schoolmaster is among those of the older generation who encouraged the boys to sign up for the army. Many adults, parents included, encouraged enlistment, even going so far as to call the boys cowards if they did not. As the young men learn what it is to be forced to grow up, so quickly, in the face of war, another irony comes forth. That is the wisdom of the soldiers compared to the foolish ideas of Kantorek and the generation before them, who portray a festive like attitude towards war. 

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