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All Quiet on the Western Front
Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest war novels of all time. It is a story, not of Germans, but of men, who even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war. The entire purpose of this novel is to illustrate the vivid horror and raw nature of war and to change the popular belief that war is an idealistic and romantic character. The story centers on Paul Baümer, who enlists in the German army with glowing enthusiasm. But in the course of war, he is consumed by it and in the end is "weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope." Through Baümer, Remarque examines how war makes man inhuman. He uses excellent words and phrases to describe crucial details to this theme.
"The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts." Baümer and his classmates who enlisted into the army see the true reality of the war. They enter the war fresh from school, knowing nothing except the environment of hopeful youth and they come to a premature maturity with the war, their only home. "We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. We are not youth any longer." They have lost their innocents. Everything they are taught, "the world of work, duty, culture, and progress" are not the slightest use to them because the only thing they need to know is how to survive. They need to know how to escape the shells as well as the emotional and psychological torment of the war.
The war takes an heavy toll on the soldiers who fight in it. The terror of death will infest the minds of soldiers and bring about horrible images of death and destruction until they break down and go to pieces. "Every hour and everyday, every shell and every death cuts this thin [line of sanity], and the years waste it rapidly." In these dangerous moments, anybody would have gone mad, have deserted their post, or have fallen. It takes a special kind of soldier to deal with this emotional abuse; a soldier who will not go to pieces at the sight of a mutilated body; it takes a soldier like Baümer. Baümer has "grown accustomed to it; war is the cause of death like influenza and dysentery.
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Every shell that falls, every shot that fires, a soldier must face the possible certainty of death. To Baümer, death carries hand grenades and a bayonet, and a rifle really to take what he has long protected-his life. Whenever he looks into the eyes of an enemy soldier, he does not see a man, but sees death staring back at him. What can you do but fight back? He can not and will not coexist with you. It does not matter that he is a man of your same distinction; it does not matter if he has a mother, a father, a sister or a brother. All that matters is that he wants to take your life. The only way for you to live is to destroy him before he does destroys you. Your salvation means his sacrifice. The life of a man is the price you pay for your continual existence. Baümer would destroy him because he threatens his survival and his survival is most important.
"We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers-we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant animals." The fate of Baümer and the fate of all soldiers depends on their faith in their primal instincts. "The menace of death has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct..." His instinct protects him from the madness and the horror of mutilation. He says "...We have become wild beasts. We do not fight... we defend ourselves against annihilation." It is survival of the fittest; killed or be killed. Baümer not only believes this but also reinforces this idea with every shot he that fires and every man he that kills.
"They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise." This is how Baümer feels, he cannot relate with men who have not fought the war. They are disillusioned by the war because they have not experienced it. "And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey." They believe they can command the war without personal fighting in it. Baümer and all soldiers are different, changed from when they entered the war. "We will not be able to find our way any more." They are the lost generation; they dread the end of the war almost as they dread wound and death. They have nothing to forward to but years of rage. They have experienced the horrors of war but not experienced enjoys of life. They will be pushed aside and forgotten and the years will past, and in the end they will fall into ruin.
All Quiet on the Western Front tries to explain the purpose of war and its uselessness. It is a story of an almost obliterated generation that fought for nothing but the principle of hate. Change the names, and it could have been the tale of a Frenchman, an Englishman, or an American. It is perhaps the most tragic generation our human records tell of. It bears the overwhelming accent of simple truth that makes you wonder why war still exists.