All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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All Quiet on the Western Front | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Paul Bäumer reflects on how strange it seems that before he joined the war, he wrote poetry and plays. He and his friends quickly realize that what they learned in school did not prepare them for what they need to know in war. Paul notes that the older soldiers have established lives at home with wives, children, and jobs to which they will return if they survive the war. But Paul and his friends are too young to have established such connections, and therefore it feels like they have nothing outside the war to go back to. For the younger soldiers who had been "on the threshold of life," rootlessness is now a way of life—when they enlisted in the army, they had no definite plans for their futures: "We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a wasteland."

During training, Paul's platoon was overseen by Corporal Himmelstoss, who has a reputation for being "the strictest disciplinarian" in the camp. Himmelstoss takes an immediate dislike to Paul and his friends, and forces them to perform punishing tasks to the point of exhaustion. Eventually, Paul and Kropp begin to defy him as best they can within the confines of obeying his orders, and Himmelstoss begins to grudgingly back off. Paul acknowledges that Himmelstoss's training was somewhat effective—the harsh regimentation prepared them for warfare in the trenches. Their shared dislike of Himmelstoss has also helps the young soldiers bond as comrades.

Back at the infirmary, Paul tries to soothe Franz Kemmerich who now recognizes he's lost his leg. Kemmerich finally offers his boots to Fredrich Müller, and Paul observes that Kemmerich looks like he only has a few hours left to live. He thinks about how long he has known Kemmerich from their schooling together, and how this makes his death feel different—and how he will have to write to Kemmerich's mother to tell her he has died. Paul tries to find a doctor when he notices that Kemmerich is slipping away, but the doctor brushes him off and has an orderly take care of Kemmerich instead. The orderly tells Paul that 16 men have already died that day, and that doctors have been operating all day long. Kemmerich finally dies, and Paul takes his things, giving Müller the boots.

Analysis

The second chapter provides a deeper glimpse into Paul Bäumer's thoughts, particularly the difficulties he encounters when trying to process what he is going through emotionally. The struggle for him is how to survive without completely disconnecting from his feelings—a struggle that is repeated throughout the novel and represents the psychological toll that war takes. Many characters, such as the doctor and orderly, are also forced to disconnect from their emotional reactions so that they can function in their roles.

Paul's portrait of Corporal Himmelstoss reveals that even though Himmelstoss is a brute, he has trained the soldiers to survive the brutal horrors of war as best he can. Paul notes that he has taught them more in 10 weeks about how to survive than they learned in all the years of their schooling. One unforeseen benefit he observes is that having to face this brutality has brought the soldiers closer together as comrades, as Paul demonstrates when he keeps Kemmerich company on his deathbed.

Even though Paul seems desensitized to much of what he witnesses around him, he is moved by Franz Kemmerich's death in a way that seems to surprise even him. Before Kemmerich dies, their discussion of their memories of home seems to cause them more pain than hope, because it is a world that no longer exists for them. Paul's reflections about their former lives as students reveal how the possibility for a different future has faded away for them. Yet Paul reveals himself to be caring and thoughtful by trying to provide Kemmerich with hope and peace before he passes away. After Kemmerich dies, Paul is overwhelmed by the swiftness with which Kemmerich's body is taken away and another wounded soldier takes his place, as though it is part of a mechanical, never-ending cycle of processing injuries and death.

When Paul gives Kemmerich's boots to Fredrich Müller, they don't discuss his death, as if they both know that it is too risky to dwell on their feelings about it. By focusing on the practical aspect of whether or not the boots fit, they are able to avoid confronting their emotions and losing control.

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