Paul’s company is taken to a depot in order to reorganize and accommodate more than 100 reinforcements. As the men relax during their time off, Himmelstoss, shaken by his time in the trenches, approaches the group and tries to make amends. Paul accepts Himmelstoss’s attempts to reconcile, especially because Himmelstoss helped Haie when he was injured in battle. Tjaden is skeptical at first, but is won over when Himmelstoss gives the men extra rations he has obtained through his new job as a cook.
Trench warfare is a human equalizer: the horrible conflict has brought Himmelstoss to the same level as the other soldiers. He realizes now the true horror of the war he was “preparing” them for in boot camp, and that his efforts to cover them up through cruelty are trivial in comparison to what they would actually face.
Paul reflects that while he and the other soldiers manage to distract themselves while they’re on leave, they never really forget what they witness on the front. They loaf on leave, Paul supposes, because they need to live without burdening themselves with any inappropriate emotions. What outsiders view as good humor in the soldiers is in fact a necessary barrier—the soldiers crack jokes because they would otherwise fall apart from bitterness. Paul realizes that once the war is over, he will need to deal with the feelings he now keeps repressed.
Paul and Kropp come across a poster for an old army performance in which a pretty girl stands beside a sharply-dressed man. They stare at the poster with longing, but with some resentment, and they rip the man out of the picture.
Paul and Kropp cannot restrain their jealousy and alienation from the luxuries of civilian life.
The men are housed in a small town, and some of the town’s inhabitants remain. In the evenings, when the men go swimming, three French women walk by the river and look at the naked soldiers. In spite of a language barrier, the men and women flirt, but each group is forbidden to pass to the other side of the river. The girls are excited by the prospect of being brought food by the soldiers, and the men make a plan to swim across to the girls’ house that night.
Flirting with the French women is one of the most organic social interactions the soldiers have, but the each party is still using other to fulfill a basic need: the women are using to soldiers to get food, and the men are using the women for sexual fulfillment. Wartime has made flirtation into just another way to use other people. Though it is notable that Paul and his friends are fighting against the French but sleeping with these French girls, and shows just how made up the conflict between the common German’s and French men really is.
Paul, Leer, and Kropp sneak over to the girls’ house and fraternize with the women. Paul has a passionate romantic encounter with a petite brunette, and he hopes that the girl’s embrace will take him out of the “war and terror and grossness” that surrounds him. After a while, the three men leave, and Paul finds himself unhappy despite Leer’s high spirits.
Paul’s attempt to escape the war through sex fails. He cannot keep his physical and spiritual needs separate from the trauma of war—his monolithic stress rears its head even in moments of tenderness.
Paul is given a pass for a seventeen-day leave. After his leave, Paul will not return to the front immediately, and will report instead to a training camp. He buys his comrades drinks at the canteen, and he wonders if he will see them again after his six-week hiatus. Paul tells his French lover about his departure, and is disappointed to see that she seems uninterested.
Paul’s leave and training-camp summons slightly alienate him from his fellow soldiers, and this detachment is what prompts him to wonder if he’s experienced this camaraderie for the last time. Paul learns that for the French girl the sex was a means to an end—the food he brought her, and perhaps the simple pleasure of sex; she did not care much at all about him.
Impatient to leave, Paul begins his journey home. As he draws nearer to the place he grew up in, he is struck by nostalgia. But when he reaches his hometown he realizes that he cannot recognize the people he sees on the streets. He returns home, and his eldest sister answers the door. Her voice overwhelms Paul, and he is brought to tears. Paul sees his mother, who has become bedridden and sickly. His family feeds him well—Paul guesses that they’ve saved the food for months, as they have had trouble getting food.
Paul feels strangely detached from his home, and feels as if there is a “veil” between himself and his family. His mother asks him how the war is, and he feels that she could never understand an honest answer. Instead of telling his mother about the horrors he’s witnessed, Paul simply tells her that things are not so bad.
Because his experience on the front has so profoundly affected him, Paul cannot verbalize the hardships he has endured. This only compounds his alienation from civilian life—it’s not just that he doesn’t fit, he can’t even explain how he doesn’t fit.
While aimlessly walking through the streets of his hometown, Paul is reprimanded for failing to salute a major. The major demands Paul’s information, and tells Paul that he won’t tolerate “front-line manners.” The major makes Paul march and salute, and Paul is indignant. Once he gets home, he casts his uniform aside and puts on civilian clothes, which are now too small for him. Paul’s mother is pleased to see him in civilian clothes, and while his father wants Paul to stay in uniform to meet family friends, Paul refuses.
The encounter with the major highlights the absurdity of formal military convention. Such decorum is useless in the struggle for survival that takes place on the front lines.
Paul feels repulsed by the curiosity people have about his military service, and appreciates his mother for asking no questions. Paul worries that if he tried to verbalize his experience, he would no longer be able to suppress it. Some aspects of domestic life prove difficult, as well: tram cars sound like screaming shells. An old schoolteacher ropes Paul into having a cigar with him, and people at the table patronize Paul and praise the war effort. When Paul expresses reservations about the success of the war, the teacher implies that Paul doesn’t understand the nuances of the conflict.
Some of the older generation of German civilians are hypocritical, and presume to understand the war better than the soldiers themselves. Paul receives the paradoxical treatment of being simultaneously condescended to and treated as an invaluable asset to the war effort.
Leave is different from what Paul expected, and he takes this to indicate that he himself has changed. He is put off by civilians’ presumptuousness, and prefers to be alone. His war experience has left him unable to understand how the civilians compartmentalize their lives and intellectualize their feelings.
The hardship of the frontlines has consumed Paul’s identity—unlike the civilians, he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to tune out the suffering of war and continue with a routine existence.
Sitting in his childhood room, Paul longs to feel as though he belongs, and wishes for the intellectual hunger he used to feel when he stared at his books. He thumbs through his books, and is unmoved by the words he sees before him. He hopes that his disenchantment during his brief time at home isn’t enough to indicate a fundamental change in his personality.
Paul goes to visit Mittelstaedt at the barracks, and discovers that Kantorek has been given a role as a subordinate officer to Mittelstaedt. Mittelstaedt tells Paul that he has rejected the schoolmaster’s attempts to be friendly, and instead criticized him for pressuring his students to enlist in the army. He takes Paul to the parade ground, and Paul looks on as Mittelstaedt reprimands a shabbily dressed Kantorek for keeping his uniform in poor condition. Then, Mittelstaedt makes Kantorek perform several ridiculous exercises. Paul is delighted to see the schoolmaster’s role reversed.
While Paul enjoys seeing Kantorek taken to task for his thoughtless, empty patriotism, this scene also carries a more somber overtone. With this depiction of how pathetic the once-dignified teacher has become, readers are shown that the war effort has held ramifications not just for people of Paul’s generation.
Leave, for Paul, is “a pause that only makes everything after it so much worse.” He begins to dwell on his imminent departure. His family goes to a slaughterhouse to get bones to make soup, but the bones run out before they can get any, and Paul brings his rations to his mother so that she may have something decent to eat.
Yet again, Paul’s experience in the trenches can’t be forgotten, and it prevents him from enjoying any aspect of his life.
Paul goes to visit Kemmerich’s mother. She is an anxious mess, and demands that Paul tell her how her son died. Paul tells her that Kemmerich was shot in the heart and killed instantly, but Kemmerich’s mother sees through the lie. Paul refuses to drop the story, and swears its truthfulness on all that is sacred to him, simply to appease Kemmerich’s mother.
Paul’s willingness to lie under oath to Kemmerich’s mother can be interpreted in a number of ways—that he no longer holds anything sacred; that he knows that the truth could only hurt her; that he senses that she couldn’t possibly understand the horror of the front lines and therefore spares her from it.
It is Paul’s last evening at home. Late that night, his mother comes into his room, and Paul pretends to sleep. They exchange awkward parting words, and Paul laments that he can no longer place his head in her lap and weep. She urges him to be careful and try his best to avoid fighting, and he asks her to get well before he returns. Paul returns to bed, furious that he came home on leave: on the front, he had been “indifferent and often hopeless,” but now, he sees himself as “nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end.”
Rather than being a relaxing respite, his trip home has reminded Paul of what he and his family have lost because of the war, and what they still stand to lose if he is killed or injured. He both finds no solace at home, but also is reminded that he cannot think solely of himself, making it harder for him to hide behind his detached exterior.