Paul travels back to the frontlines to rejoin his regiment, and is pleased to find Tjaden, Müller, Kat, and Kropp all alive and well.
The health and safety of Paul’s comrades is a blessing and a surprise, and it staves off some of Paul’s concerns about being alienated from his fellow soldiers upon his return.
The regiment cleans up its equipment in anticipation of a visit from the Kaiser. When the Kaiser arrives to inspect the troops, Paul is underwhelmed by his appearance. Tjaden muses that despite the Kaiser’s prestige, he goes to the latrine just the same as other men. When the other men pressure his position, Tjaden plays dumb, and the others unwittingly outline the uselessness of the war. Paul is noncommittal, and notices that Tjaden is pleased to have triumphed in an argument against the more patriotic volunteer soldiers.
Tjaden’s irreverent criticisms of the powers that be highlight the illogical and dehumanizing nature of modern warfare. The Kaiser is the men’s ultimate leader as the leader of their country, and as a king was held to be something more than a man. But Tjaden has become so disillusioned by the war—or, perhaps, has been made to see so clearly by the war—that he can see the Kaiser as just a normal man. And in seeing the Kaiser as a normal man Tjaden raises the question of why, if he is just like them, they are fighting and dying for him at all.
Despite rumors of being moved to Russia, the regiment is sent up to the front line. On their way up, they pass a landscape of craters and shattered trees. Some of the trees hold dead soldiers, and in one of them, Paul sees a legless, naked corpse.
The regiment’s redeployments to the front are often accompanied by sinister omens of coming violence, and the dismembered soldiers in the trees is perhaps the grisliest yet.
Paul volunteers to go on a patrol to assess the strength of the enemy’s position. A bomb lands near him and catches him off guard; he is gripped with terror of being alone and helpless in the dark.
Paul’s experience alone in the night sparks existential dread. Without the support of his comrades, the trauma of war is too much to handle.
After some time spent paralyzed in his hiding place, Paul hears the voices of the other German soldiers on patrol, and finds them deeply comforting. The presence of his comrades rescues Paul from the brink of loneliness and darkness, and he reflects on his closeness with and reliance on these men.
A bombardment begins, and Paul realizes that an enemy charge will soon follow. He pretends to be dead, and spreads himself out in the muddy water in a shell-hole. The enemy charge is repulsed by the Germans, and a wave of retreating men runs past Paul, but one stumbles onto him. Paul, without thinking, immediately begins stabbing at the man. He then retreats to another side of the hole and watches the man agonize. Paul becomes nauseated by his bloody hands, and sees in the dying man’s eyes a powerful and primal fear. He comforts the man, gives him water from the puddle, and bandages his wounds.
Paul’s proximity to the man he has killed forces him to come to terms in a much more personal way with the destruction he’s wrought. Making eye contact with the man helps Paul understand that he and the enemy soldier are no different from each other. The technology of World War I made killing impersonal. But now, when it becomes personal for Paul, he finds himself sickened by it, and wants to do everything he can to reverse it (though of course he is unable to).
The dying enemy soldier gurgles for hours. It is the first time Paul has killed anyone with his hands, and he has never before seen the destruction he has inflicted up close. In the afternoon, the man dies. Disturbed by the silence, Paul begins to talk to the body. He speaks of his sympathy for the man’s situation, and confesses that he had no real desire to kill—for Paul, killing is no longer an abstraction, and is instead a very real act. He retrieves the dead soldier’s pocketbook. In it, he finds letters, as well as portraits of a woman and little girl. He finds that he has killed a printer named Gérard Duval, and out of an optimistic hope to correspond with Duval’s family, jots the man’s address down before returning the notebook.
When Paul is forced to sit and watch the results of his actions, he becomes much more aware of the extent of misery that war is capable of causing. New technology allowed him to attenuate the experience of violence, which let killing turn into an “abstraction,” but stabbing the enemy soldier proves to be a much more real encounter with death. With knowledge of the dead man’s life story, Paul is now able to experience full-fledged sympathy for the man, instead of just seeing animal suffering.
The sunset comes, and Paul senses his time to escape. His desire to live flares and he quickly forgets about the dead man. He sneaks towards his line, and worries that his comrades may not recognize him and fire upon him. Finally, he comes across Kat and Albert, who have come out with a stretcher to look for him. He tells the men what has happened, but neglects to mention the dead printer.
After a disturbing confrontation with mortality, Paul’s more animal instincts kick in, and his basic desire for life gives him the energy to find cover.
The next morning, Paul can no longer keep the man he has killed a secret. He tells Kat and Albert what he has done, and they reassure him. Paul decides that he was only speaking nonsense in the shell-hole. They watch as a sergeant enthusiastically snipes at enemy soldiers, treating the affair as a game. The men conclude that Paul has no reason to lose sleep over what he has done.
Once again surrounded by the German war machine, Paul finds it easier to justify his actions as natural results of warfare. The impersonal detachment from suffering that trench warfare provides lets Paul set his human anxieties aside.