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.
The Horror of Modern War ThemeTracker
The Horror of Modern War 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.