Remarque, telling his story for the most part in first-person until he briefly adopts third-person following Paul's death, enables the reader to identify with a single eyewitness account, which evolves from his own experiences on the western front. Immature and at times bewildered, Paul, still in his teens, enters the war with enthusiasm, unprepared for the total obliteration of his comrades, his country's militaristic aims, his ideals, and his own fragile hold on life. As did the painters of the late nineteenth century, Remarque uses fragmented, dramatic moments in Paul's enlightenment and molds them into a stark, impressionistic whole. The most theatrical of these moments are:
- Kemmerich's dying words
- the bombardment of the cemetery
- Paul's first furlough
- the pathos of hungry prisoners
- Gérard Duval's death
- Paul's attempt to save Kat
These scenes give readers a sense of immediacy, as though they too honed bayonets, huddled in trenches, ducked waggle-tops and daisy-cutters, and grasped at life amid chaos. Taken as a unit, or what psychologists call a gestalt, the novel converges into a bleak pattern delineating the loss of personhood under the continual pounding of artillery, planes, and Allied assault.
Like Homer, Virgil, and the epic writers who produced the Chanson de Roland, Mahabharata, Beowulf, Kalevala, El Cid, and the Nibelungenlied, Remarque emulates the conventions of war literature, particularly the Greek epic.
He centers on the battlefield, beginning in medias res, or in the middle of things, moving back to the classroom and forward to the bitter end of Paul and his friends.
He emphasizes the Homeric, or epic simile, comparing events of war with scenes from nature, as with Paul's absorption in the coming of autumn, the rustling of poplar leaves, and "the canteens [which] hum like beehives with rumours of peace."
He catalogs his warriors, introducing Paul's classmates one by one, delineating their personality traits and idiosyncrasies, such as Detering's interest in farming, Haie's ham-sized hands, and Albert's desire to reason through the illogic of war.
He stresses hubris, the Greek concept of excessive pride, as seen in Himmelstoss' enjoyment of his power over young recruits and Kantorek's strutting chauvinism.
He depicts Paul as the vulnerable infantryman, whose importance to the world cataclysm lifts him to the level of an everyman.
He extends his canvas over a vast setting — the Western Front, which is described as a five-hundred-mile human wall pitted against the Allied assault.
He celebrates male bonding, just as the Iliad emphasizes Achilles' love for Patroclus, whose death overpowers his control of emotions.
He focuses on blind chance, over which humans have no power.
He maintains an objectivity toward the slaughter of a war, the proportions of which involve a long list of nations that mirror the suffering experienced by all soldiers — German or otherwise, even enemies.
In terms of the central intelligence, the novel veers sharply away from epic tradition of the noble warrior; instead, it depicts the decimation of the ordinary foot soldier. Remarque's uncanny grasp of mental breakdown suggests a personal involvement with the character — an identification stemming from his own need to exorcise the terrors of war, which, ten years after his military service, continued to plague him. In telling the story of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier, Remarque creates a universal portrayal of warfare in all its grimness and hypocrisy, despair and waste. As Paul explains his role in the Great War:
We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left. We were all at once terribly alone; and alone we must see it through.
Dramatizing only one enemy soldier by name and personality, Remarque concentrates on enemy fire as though it were a faceless, demonic machine, churning relentlessly through lines of men, flattening them in foxholes, skewering them with lethal projectiles from machine guns, rifles, grenades, and flamethrowers, and anonymously searing their lungs with gas. A far cry from the romanticized chivalric hero of Arthurian legends, the inexperienced young soldier, lacking epic stature, epitomizes a humanity that demands an end to international conflict acted out with heinous killing machines.
As Paul concludes, the level to which he and his comrades are reduced reminds him of Bushmen, the primitive forebears of the human race who should long before have educated future generations on the futility of war.
In Paul's only face-to-face confrontation with the enemy, he rises above savagery through first-hand experience and compassion. He speaks the apology of humankind — words that beg pardon for citizenship in nations that choose to annihilate each other rather than to negotiate peacefully their differences. Tragically, men like the Russian prisoners, Paul, Tjaden, Kat, Lewandowski, and Gérard Duval come from ordinary working class families, not the privileged, noble houses of the Kaiser or Hindenburg, whom Paul and Albert blame for fostering such wasteful destruction, such blatant disregard for nature.
Sacrifice, exemplified by the jar of jam and potato-cakes from home, falls heavily on noncombatants like Paul's mother and sister, who suffer rationing, but willingly pay the price if their self-denial means that Paul will know some bit of comfort in his mud-floored trench. Likewise, Marja abdicates the dignity of sexual relations exchanged in the privacy of her marital bed in order to snatch a few moments of intimacy with her husband, Johann, in a hospital ward. The nurse on the train, speaking for other noncombatants willing to share the privations of war, urges Paul to rest while he can and disregard the soiling of sheets, which she will gladly wash and iron in exchange for his brief enjoyment of a real bed.