Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
Paul’s former world—the world of schoolbooks, thinking, and being creative—is disconnected from his present world. The older men have established lives with which they can reconnect once the war is over; the young men, though, have nothing but family and a few former passions with which to connect once they return to civilian life. They had not “taken root,” so they have nothing that anchors them: “We have become a wasteland.” They enlisted with romantic notions about serving and fighting for their country; they learned that the formalities of the military are far more important than they should be. Shining boots and marching in step and standing at attention are all that matter. Paul’s class of twenty volunteer enlistees was dispersed, and he had only three classmates with him under the command of Corporal Himmelstoss.
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A former postman, Himmelstoss is a rigid man, strict in his discipline. He senses defiance in some of this group and is determined to work it out of them. Paul has performed tasks multiple times only to have Himmelstoss find fault and have him start again. He and the other defiant ones have been punished and forced to endure unbearable tasks in his attempt to break them. In one morning Paul had to remake the corporal’s bed fourteen times because Himmelstoss found some fault with it, and he has cleaned the Corporals’ Mess with a toothbrush. Nothing is ever good enough.
One day Paul and Kropp were carrying a full bucket from the latrine and Himmelstoss taunted them once again. In response, they tripped and the contents soiled the Corporal’s pants. Himmelstoss threatened the “clink,” but a fed-up Kropp threatened a formal inquiry. A standoff ensued, and the men won. In exchange, though, the men grew “hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough.” In the end, this was the preparation they needed to survive in the trenches, for they learned how to rely on each other.
Paul goes to visit Franz. Amazingly he is still alive, but the end is near. Although Paul tries to be encouraging about Franz’s future, neither of them is fooled. Finally Franz offers Paul his boots, a sign that he understands he will never have an opportunity to wear them. The orderlies will not get the boots but they continually walk by the bed, waiting for Franz to die so they can have the bed. There is no consoling Franz, so Paul just sits and waits. Soon Franz is struggling just to breathe, and Paul tries to get a doctor to take notice. They are too busy and too unconcerned; they must care for the living. When Paul returns, Franz is dead. Paul does not have to attract the attention of the orderlies; they are there, ready to empty the bed. After gathering Franz’s belongings, Paul heads back to his hut. Müller is waiting, and Paul hands him the boots. “They fit well.”