Paul Bäumer is a young enlisted soldier. His classmates in school had been cajoled into joining the service by a teacher. Classmate Josef Behm, who had resisted enlistment, ironically is the first to die. For Bäumer, resources in the field are more important than people. With his comrades, he has access to plentiful food because those soldiers for whom the food was meant are now either in the hospital, wounded in combat, or in mass graves. The situation is worth rejoicing over.
World War I is characterized by trench warfare. Soldiers hold their own lines while periodically attempting to take the trenches of the other side or to avoid having their own trenches taken. Franz Kemmerich dies of gangrene after his leg is removed. His soft boots go to Müller, who had eyed them even before Kemmerich died. Müller is shot in the belly by a tracer bullet, and his boots go to Bäumer, who, in turn, promises them to Tjaden if he dies before him. The boots matter, and the death of individuals does not.
Kantorek, the comrades’ former literature teacher and now their comrade, refers to Bäumer’s generation as the iron youth; reality consists of death and suffering. Schoolbooks report events at a political level, where emperors need to make a name for themselves by an impressive war or two and where the ideals of a country must seek fulfillment. Reality, on the other hand, dehumanizes and trivializes, and turns humans into hospital and medical classifications: belly-shot cases; spinal injuries; head shots; amputees; jaw-shot cases; gas diseases; shots into noses, ears, and necks; blindness injuries; lung shots; hip injuries; joint shots; kidney hits; testicle shots; belly hits; dripping puss; open intestines; and the bomb craters within the psyches of soldiers.
Bäumer is on furlough, and an acquaintance points out to him that he fails to see the larger connections. The acquaintance advises Bäumer to stop the trench warfare, to kick out the fellows on the other side, and to get this thing over with. Bäumer’s mother’s concern is with the sufficient supply of food to the soldiers. His father wants to hear heroic tales. These requests all lead to Bäumer’s alienation from life at home. He wonders whether he should tell the folks back home about finding gassed enemy soldiers in their trenches, blue-faced and poses betraying how they looked before the gas extinguished their lives. Home front and war front present such stark contrasts that Bäumer cannot integrate them into one experience. As the war’s madness increases in reality, home fades into alienation for Bäumer.
An older comrade, Detering, experiences this cognitive dissonance differently. Hearing that cherries are ripe, this farmer simply leaves the battlefield. The reality of home wins over the reality of battle. He is not deceptive, for he does not escape to another country; he simply attempts to go to his home in Germany. He runs into military police and—because judges at courts-martial do not grasp such cognitive dissonances—will suffer execution, in all probability.
Another key experience is the enemy. After his furlough, Bäumer spends some time guarding Russian POWs. He reflects on this experience, thinking how someone’s order had made the Russians his enemies; another...
(The entire section is 1347 words.)