In the autumn of 1918, Paul Bäumer, a 20-year-old German soldier, contemplates his future: "Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing anymore. I am so alone and so without hope that I can confront them without fear" (Chapter 12). These final, melancholy thoughts occur just before his young and untimely death. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque creates Paul Bäumer to represent a whole generation of men who are known to history as the "lost generation." Eight million men died in battle, twenty-one million were injured, and over six and a half million noncombatants were killed in what is called "The Great War." When the smoke cleared and the bodies were finally buried, the world asked — like Paul and his friends — why? Remarque writes his story to explain their reason for asking this question and why they felt betrayed by their teachers, families, and government. He creates a tale of inhumanity and unspeakable horror and the only redeeming themes of his book are the recurring ideas of comradeship in the face of death and nature's beauty in the face of bleak hopelessness.
Remarque prefaces his story with his purpose: "I will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war." Throughout the story, the reader feels that this generation has come through an event that closes forever their chance to go back to the world of their childhood. As early as Chapter 2, Paul Bäumer describes the difference between his generation and that of his parents or even the older soldiers. They had a life before the war, a life where they felt comfortable and secure. But Paul's generation never had a chance at that life. He explains, "Our knowledge of life is limited to death" (Chapter 10). Even when the story begins, all Paul has known is death, horror, fear, suffering, and hopelessness. He and his fellow classmates are only nineteen and twenty years old; even the young recruit who is mortally wounded in Chapter 4 causes Kat to say, "Such a kid. . . .young innocents — ." They feel nothing, believe in nothing, and see no future because of their experiences in the war.
Even if there were a future, in Chapter 5, Paul and his friends occasionally speculate on what it might hold. Paul cannot imagine anything that would have been "worth having lain here in the muck for" and sees everything as "confused and hopeless." His friend Albert, who will end up in a hospital with his leg amputated, feels that the war has ruined them for everything. Another soldier in their group, Kropp, understands that they will not be able to peel away two years of shells and bombs like an old sock When they were eighteen, they were just starting to live life as adults, but that life was cut short by the war and, as Paul says of their world, ". . . we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts." Will they live to fall in love, to marry, to have children? This is a future they cannot imagine and dare not think about.
Paul goes home on leave and regrets what it does to his heart. As he enters his childhood town, he realizes his life will never be the same. A terrible gulf exists between his present and his past and also between himself and his parents. He sees his past, in Chapter 6, as "a vast inapprehensible melancholy. . . . They [memories] are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us. . . . And even if these scenes of our youth were given back to us we would hardly know what to do. . . . I believe we are lost." At home on leave among his books and childhood papers, he realizes that he can never find his way back to that earlier Paul. Too much has happened at the front for him to believe in human beings or compassion. Even with his parents he realizes that life will never be the same. Paul knows his contemporaries share his feelings near the end of his story when he views the desperate...
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