Summary and Analysis
Detached from home and the normal ambitions and concerns of a man of twenty, Paul ponders a play and some verse he left in his desk and realizes that his generation has "become a waste land." He thinks about Müller's pragmatic request for the boots, which Kemmerich will obviously never need again. Paul recalls how his group of twenty classmates, their plans for the future still in the formative stages, enlisted with the district commandant. After three weeks of basic training, their caustic victimizing by their drill instructor, Himmelstoss, deflates any romance the military ever held for them. Under Himmelstoss, they tolerate demeaning harassment, such as remaking beds, sweeping snow, softening stiff boot leather, performing guard duty on consecutive Sundays, and crawling on their bellies in mud. Paul and Albert, who usually bear the brunt of Himmelstoss' ill humor, challenge his power by dumping excrement on his legs. The act breaks his tyrannical hold over them, yet Paul explains that basic training suits the needs of a soldier by strengthening brotherhood and rendering them "hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough. . . ."
Returning to Kemmerich's bedside, Paul tries to boost his friend's morale. Having discovered the amputation of his leg, Kemmerich fears that he will die without achieving his ambition to become a head-forester. Paul, who observes Kemmerich's childlike nature, regrets his friend's impending death and vainly tries to encourage Kemmerich to return to Klosterberg for convalescence. An hour later, as Kemmerich begins to gasp, Paul begs an overworked surgeon for help, and then returns with an orderly to find his friend dead. Paul collects Kemmerich's belongings, unties his identification tag, and delivers the boots to Müller. They conclude the evening with sausage, hot tea, and rum.
Chapter 2 provides a study in contrasts. On the one hand, Paul describes eloquently his "lost generation," and, on the other hand, he explains the hardening regimen that not only causes them to lose their innocence but also prepares them to survive at the front. The poignant scene with Kemmerich at the end of the chapter is a surviving indication of faith in man's humanity.
Paul continues to describe how "Our early life is cut off from the moment we came here, and that without our lifting a hand." He compares his comrades to the older generation who have already lived their middle age with homes, wives, families, and vocations. Paul and his peers have hardly even begun and, "in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land." Their heads were filled with romance and ideals, and they would never survive at the front with that education alone.
Unfortunately for Paul and his friends, fate intervenes in the person of Colonel Himmelstoss. Although the sadistic officer puts them through their well-described paces, he also teaches them more about survival in ten weeks than they ever learned in ten years of school. In their practical and chaotic world at the front, "a bright button is weightier than four volumes of Schopenhauer." So much for the schoolbooks; they learn to fight back in more subtle ways and become "hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough." This hardening regimen may seem cruel and senseless, but it prepares them for life at the front. The introduction of Himmelstoss is also important because he will later cross their paths in a very different way.
In the strange manner that life has of providing light out of darkness, Paul's battle with Himmelstoss elicits a value that Remarque continues to show throughout the novel. The brighter side of warfare is the comradeship that often develops in death-defying situations. As Paul says, a far more important lesson of their struggle is that "it awakened in us a strong, practical sense of esprit de corps, which in the field developed into the finest thing that arose out of the war — comradeship."
The poignant scene with Kemmerich in the hospital expands on the theme of companionship and evokes a faith in man's ability to care for his fellow man. Both men face reality, Kemmerich handing over his boots and Paul realizing that Kemmerich has only a few hours left. Paul nostalgically reflects on his childhood memories of Kemmerich, comparing him to a child even now. Unable to let his friend die alone, Paul cradles him in his arms and watches him silently cry as his life leaves him. But not one to wallow in self-pity, Remarque effectively undercuts this touching picture with the overworked and harsh doctor, who says he has amputated five legs that day and presided over sixteen deaths, and with the orderly who demands Kemmerich's bed immediately. The brutal picture of Franz hauled out on a waterproof sheet slices through the sadness of his last minutes. Paul collects Kemmerich's belongings, unties his identification tag, and delivers his boots to Müller. A moment of human kindness has been replaced with the cold, raw reality of death in war.
"Saul" a play whose title suggests the first king of Israel. In I Samuel 31:3-13 through II Samuel 1:1-27, David discovers Saul's body alongside that of the prince, Jonathan, and mourns their wretched deaths on the battlefield.
Plato to Goethe Plato (427?-347? B.C.) was a Greek philosopher and Goethe (1749-1832) a German poet and dramatist; the passage indicates the education Paul and his peers had, covering everything from ancient Greek philosophy to the height of German Romanticism.
Frisian people of Friesland or the Frisian Islands, near the eastern German-Dutch border.
parade-ground soldiering ceremonial formation in dress uniforms.
esprit de corps group spirit; sense of pride, honor, etc. shared by those in the same group or undertaking.
stickle-backs small, bony fishes with two to eleven sharp spines in front of the dorsal fin.
saveloy a highly seasoned, dried English sausage.