Too innocent and inexperienced at first to foresee the violent shift in his thinking, Paul, whose last name comes from the German word for tree, must learn to bend and sway with violent forces in order to remain firmly rooted in reality and to survive the inhuman buffeting that besets the German army. His thought processes are continually pulled to and fro, from the romantic notions of war he learned in school to the horrific lessons he absorbs through war's random destruction of his friends. Not capable of Müller's pragmatism, Paul nonetheless adapts to war and passes along the training he gains from Kat and from personal experience to the raw recruit who does not respond quickly enough to poisonous gas. Paul's delicacy and understanding extends to advice about tossing away underpants soiled by the young soldier during his first bombardment. The reader assumes that Paul himself has endured such unbridled terror and loss of bodily control.
Two years into the war, Paul, at age twenty, feels "cut off from activity, from striving, from progress" and acknowledges that he no longer believes in the values he once held dear. Impotent before the grinding, relentless war machine, like the rats he and the others kill, he races from cover to cover, protecting himself and avenging himself on the faceless enemy. Along the way, he is cut off from friends who are savagely destroyed. As with Haie, Paul can do little more than be there and wait for death to end the agony. He admits that he comes from an undemonstrative family of toilers, but his instinctive compassion for others often surfaces, particularly when comrades on whom he depends sustain wounds and when their deaths move him to sincere grief.
Returned home on furlough, Paul tries to reignite his enthusiasm for books; however, the effort is futile. His mind is so overcharged with front-line survivalist instincts that he is unable to reconnect with the simple idealism common to adolescence. After his harrowing experience with hand-to-hand combat and sharing a shell crater with a corpse, Paul embraces comradeship as his one salvation. Later, recovering in the Catholic hospital, he comments: "I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow." He concludes that he has prepared himself for the business of killing and wonders, "What will happen afterwards?" By Chapter 11, he is reduced to the bare bones of survival.