All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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All Quiet on the Western Front | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

The soldiers sit naked, attempting to delouse themselves. Paul Bäumer casually discusses the difficulty of getting rid of lice and the remedy that Tjaden has come up with. They are also preoccupied with the return of Corporal Himmelstoss. To distract themselves, they begin discussing what they would do if the war suddenly ended. Their answers reveal a craving for immediate comforts, such as food and women. Haie Westhus surprises them by announcing that he would stay to serve out the rest of his army time because there would be food, a bed, and free evenings.

Himmelstoss appears, and the soldiers treat him with hostility, knowing that he has little power over them now. Tjaden openly insults him, and Himmelstoss tries to pull rank on him, commanding him to stand up. When he refuses, Himmelstoss threatens Tjaden and storms off. Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky worries that Tjaden is likely to get in trouble, but Tjaden says he will gladly accept a few days in jail because it will give him a chance to rest.

The soldiers continue their previous conversation about what they would do if the war suddenly ended, and they try to recall how many of their classmates who volunteered have survived. Out of 20, 12 are still fighting. They jokingly try to remember the things they learned in school, and Paul notes how useless all of that information is to them now—they are far more concerned with survival tactics. Fredrich Müller insists, however, that they will all need to learn an occupation once the war has ended. He wonders what they will do, having never had any job other than being soldiers. Paul says he can't even imagine his future—and he begins to feel confused and hopeless. Albert Kropp notes that it will be a hard adjustment to return home, and that they won't be able to "peel ... off" two years of war "as easy as a sock ... the war has ruined us for everything." Paul realizes that Kropp is right.

Himmelstoss returns with a sergeant in tow, looking for Tjaden. He's nowhere to be found, but the sergeant warns that he must report to him in the next 10 minutes. Paul finds Tjaden and tells him. Tjaden disappears. Himmelstoss returns again in vain. That evening, a trial begins for Tjaden, with each soldier called to testify. Paul attempts to explain Tjaden's behavior and animosity toward Himmelstoss. The lieutenant is sympathetic to Tjaden after he learns of Himmelstoss's harsh behavior toward him for bed-wetting, but Tjaden is still given three days of open arrest. However, it is "quite pleasant." Locked in a former chicken coop, Tjaden can get some much-needed rest and his friends can easily visit.

Kat and Paul decide to catch some geese they saw earlier in a shed. They sneak into the shed, and Paul has difficulty catching and killing them. Suddenly a dog attacks him, and Paul thinks he will have to kill the dog if he wants to escape. He shoots the dog, but it doesn't die, and attacks him again. He is able to escape with one of the geese, and he and Kat find a place to kill and roast it. It dawns on Paul that before the war, he and Kat would have had nothing to say to each other, given their different stations in life. But now they are as close as two people can be.

Analysis

The men's difficulty killing lice is jarring in the aftermath of how easily their comrades are killed in Chapter 4. The technological advancements in warfare during World War I are more efficient at killing humans than the soldiers have been at finding a remedy for killing lice. This reinforces the war as an indifferent killing machine. It also provides yet another instance of situational irony. What should happen is contradicted by what actually does: lice survive and thrive, while new weapons make killing off humans in droves easier than ever.

The discussion between the soldiers about their futures reveals how little life experience most of them have had. They focus on immediate desires, such as women and warm meals. Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky, the oldest among them, is the only soldier who has an established life to return to, and this highlights how the younger soldiers' lack such a foundation to which to return home. Paul Bäumer's worry shows that many of the young soldiers recognize how drastically the war has changed them, and perhaps rendered them unfit to return to civilian life.

This generation of men was referred to as the "Lost Generation" in the aftermath of World War I, not only for the staggering number of men who lost their lives during the war, but also for the aimlessness they felt upon returning to their civilian lives—their identities were wholly wrapped up in war. As a result, Paul and his comrades have a hard time imagining anything apart from fighting because they don't know how to do anything else. Haie Westhus even plans to remain in the army because its routines are so familiar to him. Imagining a future for themselves also requires the soldiers to feel some sense of hope, a difficult emotion to access as they struggle to survive in the lethal environment of the front.

The soldiers' collective reaction to Corporal Himmelstoss flexing his power shows how little respect they have for authority figures at this point. In a way, fighting and death have also rendered them numb to smaller consequences, such as a few days in jail. Their disdain for Himmelstoss reflects that they don't believe in the machinery and grandstanding of war. On the other hand, Paul and Kat's moment together roasting the goose shows the softer side of the bonds made in war. Paul notes that in civilian life, he and Kat would never have met or had anything in common, but they've been through a lot together through their shared experience of war. Their bond seems so intense because of the horrors they've shared, and it's a bond that civilians would not likely understand. Their friendship is all the more profound because it allows them to feel, contrasting with their need to numb themselves in order to survive.

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