Summary and Analysis
Back at the front in springtime, Paul perceives war as a kind of disease, "the cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery." His mind refuses to focus on the carnage, which leaves craters on both the physical and emotional landscape. No one remembers what existed prior to the war, and the only fleeting enjoyment is in the brotherhood of soldiers. Life is "limited to what is most necessary," such as whether to eat in case a later belly wound would be complicated by food. Paul tries to think of the positives and hang on to them "against the onslaught of nothingness."
As time goes by, the shell between sanity and insanity is broken. The German line, buffeted into shreds, disintegrates into a "bitter struggle from crater to crater." So desperate do the men become as the English surround them that they urinate into the empty case that holds water to cool the machine gun. Detering sees a cherry tree blossoming in a garden and its reminder of wife and home cause him to desert. He is later caught and court-martialed. Berger illustrates a case of front-line madness. He leaves the crater and goes out a hundred yards to help a wounded messenger dog. Shot in the pelvis, he is brought back by a stretcher bearer who gets a leg wound. Müller is also dead. He is shot at point-blank range in the stomach and lives half an hour in terrible pain. He gives Paul his pocket-book and the boots that were worn so long ago by Kemmerich. Taking the boots, Paul grimly says that, after he himself dies, they will go to Tjaden.
Against a fresh supply of American and British adversaries, the German army bleeds its life away. The Germans are running out of shells, have too few horses, and are helpless against the new and menacing machines of war — Allied tanks. Firearms are in short supply and barrels wear down, distorting the soldiers' aim. Germany is so strapped for replacement troops that the army drafts young boys, who are of little use. Military surgeons are so eager to return men to battle that they stamp men A1 without examining them. Paul despises the "fraud, injustice, and baseness" in the army and also blames the German factory owners who are getting rich while putting sawdust in the rations, which rip out the soldiers' intestines.
Lt. Bertinck, who has served as a worthy example for two years, dies while combating a flamethrower. The shot that hits his chin veers into Leer's hip and he bleeds to death. Paul bitterly recounts, "What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician at school."
Spring becomes the wretched summer of 1918. Cognizant of Germany's heavy losses, Paul is keenly aware of life. His descriptions of nature allude to its natural presence amid the carnage: red poppies, smooth beetles, black and mystic trees, stars, and flowing water. Rumors of peace encourage him to hang on in hopes of an armistice. By now English and American planes outnumber Germany's fleet five to one. Paul summarizes, "We are not beaten, for as soldiers we are better and more experienced; we are simply crushed and driven back by overwhelming superior forces."
Late in summer, Kat sustains a wound to the shin. Paul shoulders his buddy and hurries toward medical help, stopping occasionally to rest and reflect on their experiences. Because the two have been friends for nearly three years, Paul requests Kat's address so that they can remain in touch when they return to civilian life. Kat's condition worsens; Paul, without realizing that Kat has received a mortal wound to the skull, staggers on toward the dressing station. The orderly pronounces Kat "stone dead." Paul's mind, unable to cope with fatigue and, more importantly, the personal loss of his best friend, goes blank.
The atmosphere of the final chapters grows more desperate. The German army and its soldiers, such as Kat and Paul, appear to be totally resigned to the futility of their situation. The Western Front is collapsing and many of the soldiers, represented by Detering and Berger, dissolve into madness. The past three years of their lives have been nothing but death, gas, horror, mud, rats, brutal scenes, shelling, desperation, and madness. Remarque constantly shells the reader with all of these things, as well as with the hopelessness and futility of war in general.
Paul alone, out of his original group of seven classmates, has survived, and now even his remaining support, Kat, is taken away from him. The only thing helping Paul survive was the brotherhood and comradeship of his friends. Now not even that is possible, and the loss of Kat is so great that Paul (or Remarque) cannot begin to describe it. When the orderly asks Paul if they are related, he says, "No, we are not related. No, we are not related." We see the bitter irony in his reply, because much earlier Paul said of their tie, "I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way. . . ."
gendarmes police officers in France and Belgium.
Verey light a flare gun.
latrine poles poles that serve as toilet seats above holes dug to contain human excrement.
A1 a person who is fit for military service. Lesser degrees of fitness rate C3 or B3, for example.