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Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Road Back extends the "rites of passage" theme of All Quiet on the Western Front; this becomes evident as the novel opens with a "Prologue" that begins with "What is still left of Number 2 Platoon." Once Armistice is declared, the survivors recall their dead comrades who include Baumer, Kat, Haie, Brandt, and Muller. In addition, the narrator is nineteen-year-old Ernst Birkholz who is similar to Baumer in thought and temperament and who relates his and his friends' feelings and experiences after the Armistice as they return home from the hell of war. Moreover, whereas Baumer explains the effects of war on him and his comrades, Birkholz explains the aftereffects of war on him and his friends. Birkholz for example, feels isolated from his immediate family — his mother, as did Baumer's, fails to understand that war has changed her boy into a man. At home Birkholz is very restless and constantly seeks his comrades with whom he feels more comfortable, relaxed, and for whom he feels stronger bonds than with his own family. These feelings, of course, echo Baumer's experiences when he was home from the front.

Just as combat took its toll on Birkholz's friends, so, too, do the aftereffects of the war. George Rahe, haunted by the ghosts of war, returns to the now peaceful battlefield where he blows his brains out; Ludwig Breyer mourns that "we are all lost" and slashes his wrists; during a demonstration against profiteering and swindling, Max Weil is machine gunned by soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Heel, Birkholz's and Weil's former commanding officer. Although alive, the disabled are also reminders of the war and its effects — Hans Trosske has lost both feet to frostbite; Kurt Leipold has an artificial arm; and Paul Rademacher, who had received "two cuts with a trenching tool," has lost his left eye, nose, part of his mouth and all of his teeth, and three fingers.

These particularized examples represent the hundreds of thousands who must be cared for and who often march and carry placards that protest: "Where is the Fatherland's gratitude? — The War Cripples are starving." Despite the suicides and the disfigured, Birkholz, Willy Homeyer, Tjaden, Ferdinand Kosole, and even Bruno Muchehaput, the battalion's expert sniper who has killed over twenty men, survive the chaos of homecoming and put meaning and purpose in their lives. In a metaphorical sense, each constructs his own road back.