Remarque prefaces his novel with a disarmingly simple two-sentence statement of purpose, which clarifies that his book neither accuses nor confesses, nor is it meant to be an adventure story. The author explains that he is merely trying to characterize his generation, the young men who fought the Great War and who were destroyed by it. The task Remarque sets for himself suggests the heavy personal burden that consumed his private thoughts for a decade following his own departure from the western front.
Having endured shelling, poisonous gas, and poor-quality medical treatment in the field, Remarque was admirably suited for the role of spokesperson for a generation of young people who, whatever their level of involvement, loss, or outlook, were fated to shoulder guilt, remorse, trauma, and dysfunction. Through loss of ideals and beliefs held sacred by prewar society, survivors, unmoored from the safe anchorage usually accorded the young, drifted into despair, disgust, and spiritual unrest. Deprived of innocence by nightmarish sounds and sights that they were incapable of articulating to family and friends, they survived on the edge, never quite in tune with the present and hopelessly detached from the future. They were, as Gertrude Stein commented to a war-maimed Ernest Hemingway, a "lost generation."