Paul has begun to think of war as a chronic illness, like cancer or tuberculosis. Germans suffer frequent casualties, and men’s thoughts are governed simply by whether or not they are in danger. The brotherhood of being a soldier equalizes and homogenizes men with different pasts, and it leads to a simultaneously “heroic and banal” condition in which men try to appreciate every hour they can, because their lives are so uncertain.
Trench warfare has so dehumanized the men that they no longer have the luxury of thinking about anything but basic pleasure and primal danger. At the same time, for facing these pressures at all the men are heroic and every instant they are alive gains a greater intensity.
Pragmatic considerations are, to Paul, the “real problems” that are necessary to consider. The men all live on the same plane of primitive survival, concerned with nothing other than preserving their survival. They have been turned into “unthinking animals” so that they can use the “weapon of instinct,” and they can be almost completely indifferent to the horrors they witness. However, this indifference is not total—men will sometimes be struck with a grave emotional yearning, which Paul thinks illustrates that the soldiers’ have not become entirely primitive creatures. Instead of being naturally primitive, the soldiers are “primitive in an artificial sense, and by virtue of the utmost effort.”
Survival dictates that the men must shed nearly every attribute that makes them human beings. However, this can never be completely achieved—the men strain to forget their human desires, and being animalistic ultimately takes a severe toll on their spirits.
In spite of the steps the soldiers take to diminish the effects of war, the men begin to break down. Detering passes a blossoming cherry tree and becomes fixated on it. He takes branches off the tree and carries them with him, to remind him of his orchard at home. Paul notices Detering acting strangely and packing up his gear, and advises the peasant not to act foolishly, but Detering deserts the army soon after. Instead of fleeing to Holland, which is a safer refuge for deserters, Detering makes the mistake of returning to Germany. A week later, he is caught by the military police, and the rest of the men hear nothing further of him.
The great effort required to suppress all but their most basic, animalistic needs has begun to take its toll on the men. Detering is finally unable to control his need to escape, but he acts on this rational impulse in an irrational way, by simply returning to his home without thinking out the consequences. Detering’s capture symbolizes the dangers of simply trying to resume normal life after fighting in the trenches. On the flip side, Detering has risked his life for the army, but the army offers him no leniency or understanding. He is just a cog to them, a cog who is not allowed to make decisions for himself.
Müller dies after being shot from point-blank range in the stomach. He agonizes for half an hour, and is conscious of his intense suffering. Before dying, Müller gives Paul his pocket-book and his boots—the very same boots that once belonged to Kemmerich. Paul promises that once he dies, the boots will be passed to Tjaden.
Even in life-and-death moments, the men remain focused on practical matters and devoted to one another’s basic well-being. Paul has no trouble understanding that he is a mere vehicle for the passing-on of desirable boots as much as he is a human being.
The German soldiers are emaciated and afflicted with dysentery, while Americans and English are well-equipped and in good health. Fresh German recruits are in poor health and die by the thousands—Kat muses that “Germany ought to be empty soon.” The men are convinced that the war will never end, as even seriously injured men are sent back to the front from the hospitals by cowardly surgeons who give in to the army’s demands for men.
Morale in the German ranks is fairly dismal, and justifiably so. Miserable living conditions, couple with the constant death of their comrades, make the men unable to imagine another sort of life. The war is clearly being lost, and yet so many men are dying for this now lost cause (which the men already largely seemed not to believe in).
Paul and his comrades are especially horrified by the tanks that assault them. Because the tanks are so impersonal and unfeeling, Paul thinks that they “embody for us the horror of war.”
World War 1 marked a dramatic advance in impersonal, efficient killing—which likely amplified the trauma suffered by soldiers.
Paul’s Company Commander, a courageous man named Bertinck, is killed, though he fights against the enemy until the very end. Leer is struck by a shrapnel fragment and bleeds out from his hip. Paul reflects that Leer’s excellence in math class was little use to him.
Paul continues to lose more and more of his closest friends as the situation deteriorates further. These men once had hopes, ambitions, and talents—the war has rendered all of that meaningless. They are just bodies, to kill and be killed.
The summer of 1918 is particularly brutal, and the Germans know they are losing. They lack soldiers and ammunition, but continue to fight and die. The beautiful weather and rumors of an armistice make the men even more pained to return to the front.
The lovely weather and hope for peace make the ongoing warfare and death seem even more senseless and impractical.
Kat, Paul’s last friend left in the army, is shot in the shin as he and Paul transport food together. Paul carries Kat back to medical care, while Kat suffers brutally. The two reminisce over the time they roasted geese together, and exchange addresses so that they can correspond. When the two finally reach medical care, Paul discovers that Kat was struck in the head by a tiny piece of shrapnel, and is already dead. An orderly is so surprised by Paul’s devotion in carrying Kat such a long distance that he asks if Kat is Pauls’ relative.
Paul’s heroic efforts to save Kat, his last friend, are in vain, which represents the seeming powerlessness of a single soldier in the trenches. The orderly thinks Paul and Kat are related because he cannot understand the camaraderie between soldiers that forces Paul to so valiantly strive to save Kat. And in fact, Paul’s connection to Kat is so strong it is like being a relative. They are, in the deepest sense, brothers.