Many of the young soldiers, including Paul, joined the army because they were motivated by romantic ideals like patriotism and honor. On the front, however, they quickly learn that patriotic fervor will not protect them from exploding shells or poison gas. In the trenches, there is only one goal: survival at any cost. Soldiers must be prepared to act unthinkingly in battle, no matter how horrifying these actions might have once seemed. The men revert to animal instinct under fire, suppressing all higher thought. Emotions like pity, grief, or disgust are fatal to the soldier, as they might cause him to hesitate or second-guess himself.
Readers of All Quiet on the Western Front often find Paul’s calm, neutral attitude towards his experiences almost as disturbing as the carnage he describes. As Paul himself explains, however, becoming desensitized to the horror around him is the only way he can keep going. Only rarely is an event traumatic enough to briefly break down these mental barriers—as, for example, when Paul is trapped alone for hours with the body of a French soldier he has killed, or when his best friend Katczinsky (Kat) is killed by a shrapnel fragment.
Survival Quotes in All Quiet on the Western Front
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
Though Müller would be delighted to have Kemmerich's boots, he is really quite as sympathetic as another who could not bear to think of such a thing for grief. He merely sees things clearly…We have lost all sense of other considerations, because they are artiﬁcial. Only the facts are real and important for us. And good boots are scarce.
At the sound of the ﬁrst droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness. One cannot explain it…It is this other, this second sight in us, that has…saved us, without our knowing how.
We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have. We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another…What does he know of me or I of him? formerly we should not have had a single thought in common--now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.
It is just as much a matter of chance that I am still alive as that I might have been hit. In a bombproof dug-out I may be smashed to atoms and in the open may survive ten hours' bombardment unscathed. No soldier outlives a thousand chances. But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck
The terror of the front sinks deep down when we turn our backs upon it; we make grim, coarse jests about it, when a man dies, then we say he has nipped off his turd, and so we speak of everything; that keeps us from going mad; as long as we take it that way we maintain our own resistance.
I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss. It is not now the time but I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended. My heart beats fast: this is the aim, the great, the sole aim, that I have thought of in the trenches; that I have looked for as the only possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling; this is a task that will make life afterward worthy of these hideous years.
Now I hear mufﬂed voices. To judge by the tone that might be Kat talking…These voices, these quiet words, these footsteps in the trench behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades. I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;—I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.
"Comrade, I did not want to kill you…But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction…now, for the ﬁrst time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your riﬂe; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship…Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these riﬂes and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up—take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now."
Thus we live a closed, hard existence of the utmost superﬁciality, and rarely does an incident strike out a spark. But then unexpectedly a ﬂame of grievous and terrible yearning ﬂares up.
Those are the dangerous moments. They show us that the adjustment is only artiﬁcial, that it is not simple rest, but sharpest struggle for rest.
He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report conﬁned itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.