All Quiet on the Western Front

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The Horror of Modern War Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Horror of Modern War Theme Icon
Survival Theme Icon
The Lost Generation Theme Icon
Comradeship Theme Icon
The Hypocrisy of the Older Generation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All Quiet on the Western Front, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Horror of Modern War Theme Icon

World War I is considered the first modern war, as it was the first conflict in which weapons like poison gas, armored tanks, and shell bombardments were used widely by both sides. Much of the land conflict in WWI was fought in networks of trenches dug throughout Europe, including the infamous “Western Front” in Belgium and France. Set in the final years of the war, the novel All Quiet on the Western Front is famous for its extremely graphic depictions of life and death in the trenches. Trench fighting was grueling and inefficient. Gaining a few hundred yards of land could easily cost the lives of thousands of men. Those who survived direct attacks often suffered catastrophic shrapnel injuries, losing arms, legs, and even faces.

The technological advances that powered the war effort allowed for wholesale, mechanized slaughter. With weapons like heavy artillery and poison gas at their disposal, soldiers no longer had to come into contact with enemy combatants in order to kill them. Violence became a much more impersonal affair. Soldiers like those in Paul’s regiment became detached from the men they killed, and the threat of a vague, unforeseeable death hangs over them. When Paul kills in person for the first time by stabbing a French soldier named Gérard Duval, he is deeply shaken by the experience—the “abstraction” of killing becomes a reality.

In addition to the unprecedented trauma caused by the advances in war machinery, soldiers experienced other physical and psychological hardships. Paul, the young German soldier who narrates the novel, describes the soldiers’ horrific living conditions in detail. Trenches flooded easily and offered little protection from the elements, making them breeding-grounds for diseases like dysentery and typhoid. They were also infested with vermin, including large, aggressive “corpse-rats” that fed on the bodies of fallen soldiers. Living in this environment, under the constant threat of violent death, took an emotional toll on the young soldiers. Many suffered from shell shock, a psychological condition similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Several characters in the novel, including Paul, experience some form of shell shock, causing them to freeze up, go mad, or attempt to flee during battle. As Paul observes repeatedly, no one can survive the war completely unscathed.

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The Horror of Modern War ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Horror of Modern War appears in each chapter of All Quiet on the Western Front. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Horror of Modern War Quotes in All Quiet on the Western Front

Below you will find the important quotes in All Quiet on the Western Front related to the theme of The Horror of Modern War.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Page Number: v
Explanation and Analysis:

At the novel’s onset, the narrator frames the way the reader should receive the content. He presents it as a primarily factual story.

These lines serve to preempt any expectations about the impetus for or message of the novel. One might expect a war novel to be an “accusation” against own one’s government or an enemy government; or perhaps a “confession” recounting the crimes the narrator has committed. To expect an “adventure” would be to assume that the narrator aggrandizes the events he recounts—another turn foreseeable in a war story. Yet the narrator denies the value of seeing experiences in this epic light, claiming that death is an adventure only in the gaze of an external observer—not the one who has actually spent time in war. Promising to “simply tell of a generation of men,” he ultimately rejects each of these conventions for a non-political and deeply realist style.

Beyond prefiguring the style of the novel, these lines also offer keen insight into the content of the text: the inner psychology of those who fought in the war. Once more, a reader may arrive with expectations that the novel will focus on the battles and successes—which Remarque epitomizes as “its shells”—but this text is less concerned with physical pain than with mental distress. Thus its realism is an explicitly psychological and interior one, ultimately concerned with the way that a set of traumatic events transformed the human mind.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

If you train a dog to eat potatoes and then afterwards put a piece of meat in front of him, he'll snap at it, it's his nature. And if you give a man a little bit of authority he behaves just the same way, he snaps at it too. The things are precisely the same. In himself man is essentially a beast, only he butters it over like a slice of bread with a little decorum. The army is based on that; one man must always have power over the other.

Related Characters: Stanislaus Katczinsky (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

As they discuss Himmelstoss’s nature, the soldiers wonder how he could have originally been a mere postman.

Kat explains that his is a fundamental human response to the sudden acquisition of power. Kat presents a model of human nature that is deeply antagonistic and opportunistic. Likening man to a “dog” highlights, already, his animalistic qualities, and he completes the parallelism by saying a man “behaves just the same way.” Himmelstoss’s actions are therefore entirely sensible: he had little access to power as a post-man—the analog for potatoes—but the moment he gained the “meat” of authority in the army, he immediately adapted to the role. For Kat, this logic undergirds the entire structure of the military; it is the way that men, once in roles of power, are able to exercise control despite their background and lord it over others.

What is peculiar about this passage is the way that it does not assign blame to Himmelstoss: We might expect such an abuse of authority to induce criticism from the soldiers, but Kat actually presents his behavior as natural and thus permissible. Saying that “man is essentially a beast” casts displays of power simply as accurate representations of human nature—whereas other social courtesies are just the false “butter” placed on this metaphorical “bread.” Once more, Remarque implies that the soldiers gain better insight into human nature from their war experiences. As a result, they do not morally condemn their superior for his authoritarian practices, but contextualize and rationalize those actions.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Kat looks around and whispers: "Shouldn't we just take a revolver and put an end to it?"

The youngster will hardly survive the carrying, and at the most he will only last a few days. What he has gone through so far is nothing to what he's in for till he dies. Now he is numb and feels nothing. In an hour he will become one screaming bundle of intolerable pain. Every day that he can live will be a howling torture. And to whom does it matter whether he has them or not—I nod. "Yes, Kat, we ought to put him out of his misery."

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker), Stanislaus Katczinsky (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

When Paul and Kat realize that the new recruit will only live for a short time, they consider what to do. They agree the most ethical choice would be to end his misery by shooting him.

This conversation demonstrates how deeply moral standards can shift in the context of a war. Although normally killing a comrade would be considered awful, the two characters actually decide that it would be the more humane thing to do in this context. Instead of conforming to a normal system of ethics that considers certain actions unacceptable regardless of context, the soldiers adopt a more utilitarian approach to the world: they are willing to engage in otherwise barbaric practices if they would grant a sense of peace to the solider.

Beyond verifying the way that ethics are warped in a war environment, this passage also brings up the question of anonymity in war. When Paul notes, “to whom does it matter” if he lives for additional days, he insinuates that life is primarily meaningful when it is observed and verified by external observers. Yet this young man would be dying without family or friends to validate his pain, or even his existence. Paul therefore contends that human life is itself a factor of social context—a context notably lacking in the anonymous conditions of modern war.

Chapter 6 Quotes

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

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

While on the front, Paul reflects on how his life is dictated by randomness. He is deeply pragmatic but also continues to believe in a form of fate.

Though the reader might assume that arriving on the front would bring great fear to the soldiers, Paul points out that the danger they experience there is not dissimilar to that felt at other military moments. Ignoring statistical methods of comparison, he examines individual anecdotes, observing that a “bombproof dug-out” does not grant complete protection, just as being “in the open” does not signal one for death. Each moment is instead taken to be one of the “thousand chances” that will eventually cumulate to make death highly probable. Here, then, Paul adopts a more scientific or statistical view of events—until he switches gears in the final sentence.

Saying, “But every soldier believes in Chance and trusts his luck” contains two layered points: Paul simultaneously expresses disdain or distance from viewpoints that adhere to faith, while also implicitly grouping himself in the “every soldier” cohort that holds these views. Thus he points out how one can hold a set of seemingly contradictory opinions on death and chance—believing in statistical accuracy at the same time as adhering to fate.

Chapter 7 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

As he prepares to go on leave, Paul ponders the behaviors that soldiers tend to take up when they leave the front. He observes that the humor others perceive as characteristic of soldiers is a defense mechanism for dealing with the horrors of war.

Characteristically, Paul responds to and denies a reader’s expectation of why soldiers behave in a certain way. We might assume that leaves offer solace from the front—and that the soldiers' humor therefore reflects that joy. But Paul explains that a leave only causes “the terror of the front” to become more poignant and painful, for it throws into relief the horrors just experienced. Humor becomes, then, a way for the soldiers to sterilize and to write off their horrific experiences. For instance, using the phrase “nipped off his turd” to refer to a solider’s death misdirects the actual emotional pain of such an event instead toward an adolescent joke. That this behavior “keeps us from going mad” casts it as a psychological need instead of flippant humor, and the emphasis on “resistance” corroborates the heft of the satire. Thus Remarque cautions us from making rapid assessments of a soldier’s personality or idiosyncrasies, and to examine more closely what may be psychologically motivating even something as simple as humor.

Chapter 8 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker)
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul expresses empathy toward the toiling Russian soldiers, but he catches himself in the act and resolves to delay these thoughts until after the war has ended.

The fact that Paul feels a need to separate his emotions speaks to the intense psychological requirements of being a soldier in this horrific war. Though he ruminates on the humanity of the Russian soldiers in a compelling way, he notices that those thoughts will not fulfill a pragmatic purpose in the war and thus they will lead him toward “the abyss.” He demands instead that he “shut them away” and instead fixate on “the sole aim” of the war—which can only view the Russians as enemies to be defeated. Thus Paul must harshly separate his emotions and thoughts in order to stay sane and competent in the war.

Yet despite emphasizing the need for these partitions, Paul also maintains that his conclusion is essential to recall after the war’s end. Indeed, his belief in the Russians’ humanity becomes part of “a task that will make life afterward worthy of these hideous years”—precisely what he had struggled to pinpoint earlier when imagining the post-war conditions. The task, Remarque implies, is concerned with recognizing the arbitrariness of war and thus empathizing with soldiers even from the opposite faction. Paul’s conclusion therefore speaks both to the need to prevent these thoughts in order to survive the war and to the merit they could have in a different world.

Chapter 9 Quotes

This is the first time I have killed with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing. Kat and Kropp and Müller have experienced it already, when they have hit someone; it happens to many, in hand-to-hand fighting especially— But every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker), Stanislaus Katczinsky, Müller, Albert Kropp
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

While a cohort of enemy soldiers retreats, Paul stabs one instinctively. He notes that this is the first man he has killed with his own hands.

This experience forces Paul to confront the violence inherent in the war for the first time. Nesting the clause, “whose death is my doing” under the statement “this is the first time” may strike the reader as odd—for Paul has certainly been responsible for death before. Yet this is the first time that that action has taken place directly in front of his eyes. Previous acts on the front have not required direct confrontation with another human. In this way, Paul realizes that he associates culpability not with actual violence but instead with perceived and proximal violence.

Beyond emphasizing the distancing, desensitizing effects of this anonymous and horrifying war, this passage affirms Paul’s deep capacity for empathy. He feels a reciprocal emotional pain for the dying man: His “gasp” affects Paul’s heart; his “invisible dagger” is a parallel weapon applied to his mental state (“thoughts”) and temporal existence (“time”). In this way, Remarque verifies the way that Paul feels an intense emotional response to the other soldiers. Though he may seek to repress this impulse in order to be an operational soldier and stay sane amidst the violence of war, the moments in which it arises are deeply affecting.

"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."

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker), Gérard Duval
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul finds the pocketbook of the dying soldier and learns more about his identity. He reckons with the way this new knowledge increases his feelings of guilt.

Once more, Remarque reveals a deep empathetic capacity hidden within Paul. Whereas before, Paul viewed the soldier as “an abstraction,” learning these facts about his identity has turned him into “a man like me.” Thus specific information has given him not only an individual human role, but more directly a deep similarity to Paul. This shift in perspective alters the objects on which Paul focuses, from the accoutrements of war instead toward his relationships and even a potential connection between the two: “our fellowship.” Extrapolating a feeling of comradeship is particularly significant considering how Paul has previously described the deep meaning he feels from his relationships with other soldiers on his own side.

Though this passage focuses on a single interaction, it also carries a broader social critique. That Paul asks, “Why do they never tell us,” posits an overseeing force that obscures human information on other soldiers and that takes on a censoring role. The implication is that he “could be my brother” if only different streams of information made his full identity more available to Paul. Thus the comradeship that Paul finds with his fellow soldiers is shown to be, in part, a social construction from larger forces wishing to divide groups of individuals.

Chapter 11 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker)
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

Ruminating on the abstract condition of being a soldier, Paul points out the paradoxical nature of his unit’s existence. To survive, they must focus on purely pragmatic concerns, but they also encounter occasional intense moments that reveal great emotional depths they otherwise try to ignore.

Paul divides the soldiers’ lives into two distinct psychological experiences: the first is the set of practical concerns focused solely on staying alive, while the second is a more intense, emotional relationship to the self and world. Casting the first as “utmost superficiality” might seem to trivialize it, but Paul actually regards the poignant experiences as the negative ones: “Those are the dangerous moments” because they distract the soldiers from the external concerns that must take precedence in war, and can easily lead them to despair or madness.

That Paul sees the pragmatic existence as “artificial” is thus not to be taken as a negative assessment. Rather, he sees pragmatics as a necessary lie for the group to tell themselves in order to survive and stay sane. It may not be “simple rest” but it is a necessary “struggle” to eventually approach that state. In this way, Paul revises the earlier criticism of split human psychology: He affirms his two-part existence but here contends that it is necessary given the situation.

Chapter 12 Quotes

And men will not understand us—for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten—and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered;—the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin.

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer (speaker)
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul fantasizes about returning home after the war has ended. He reminds himself, however, that those whom he returns to will be unable to understand what the experience had meant to him.

These reflections return to the motif of the "lost generation" to which Paul belongs. Those in the older generation were firmly anchored in their lives before the war began, and those in the newer one will have been too young to have experienced the hardships of war. As a result, Paul reasons, neither side will be able to make sense of the soldiers’ memories or identities. Not only will they be pushed aside by these generations, but they will “be superfluous even to ourselves”—socially unnecessary, misunderstood, and suffering from the effects of trauma and existential despair. The deep irony, here, is that they were integral to society during the war, but the exact skills needed in that moment will render them irrelevant in peacetime.

It is worth noting that Paul himself will never experience this fate, for he dies in the novel before the arrival of peacetime. The technique of placing these thoughts in his protagonist’s mind is another example of how Remarque transforms an anecdotal tale into a broader reflection on the generation. For Paul is predicting a broad social fate that he himself will never witness.

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.

Related Characters: Paul Bäumer
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel’s final scene, a third person narrator recounts a soldier’s death. The unnamed man passes unexpectedly and peacefully.

This passage marks a stark shift from the narrative style of the rest of the novel. It departs quite suddenly from Paul’s first-person narration to enter the mind of an unknown external observer. Its tone begins as efficient and unemotional, mimicking the “army report” it mentions, until the last sentence introduces a more poetic perspective. In particular, the phrase “as though” presents a creative mind regarding the body, attributing emotions and thoughts to the vacant scene. One could imagine this to be the perspective of the person who discovered the soldier, or perhaps that of Remarque himself.

Indeed, this passages epitomizes the mix of emotional distance and proximity that occurs throughout the novel. That the army report encapsulates the soldier’s death in one sentence would speak, generally, to the way that military service reduces the complexity of human life to a simple set of data. But by making that sentence the very title of this novel, Remarque presents his own text as an attempt to restore complexity and value to a single soldier’s life: to expand the aphoristic line into a full, realistic, human story.

While it is obviously tempting to assume this soldier is Paul, Remarque notably refers to the soldier only as a general “he.” Here, we see Remarque bringing together several of the thematic developments of war's anonymity. Paul is dehumanized through the distanced tone of the narrator and the army report, yet that same incognito quality also makes him a literary symbol, a microcosm of what it would have meant to fight in World War I. Thus Remarque concludes the novel by both turning Paul into a universal type and critiquing that exact process. He simultaneously makes Paul stand for the lost generation and demands that the reader examine, through the realist apparatus of the novel, an intricate and deeply singular character.