All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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All Quiet on the Western Front | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Paul Bäumer's company travels for a few days, past transport lines. He has difficulty finding his regiment or what has happened to them. Finally, he is instructed to wait for his company to return, and he spots Tjaden, Fredrich Müller, Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky, and Albert Kropp. Paul feels relief, and as though he is somewhere he finally belongs. The soldiers hear rumors that the war may be ending, or that they will be sent to fight in Russia. Then they find out the real story: the Kaiser, or German emperor, is coming to review their company. They are being drilled incessantly in anticipation of his arrival, and are given new uniforms to wear to impress him.

All the men are curious about what the Kaiser looks like, but when he arrives, he disappoints them. They ponder the role the Kaiser played in starting the war and question the basis of the war itself. Kropp points out that the soldiers on both sides are merely trying to protect their homelands—who's to say who is in the right? Tjaden considers the fact that countries themselves are abstractions. "A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France," he declares. He doesn't feel personally offended by the French. Kat thinks that the rulers of the nations involved in the war benefit because war brings them fame and power; Detering agrees that army generals benefit the same way. Kropp finally compares war to a fever: no one wants it, but it just takes over.

After the Kaiser leaves, the soldiers are forced to put on their old uniforms and return to the front lines. On their way, they see gruesome sights such as dead men hanging from trees and a soldier with his legs blown off, but seem unaffected by what they witness. They are sent on patrol to assess the strength of the enemy's position. Paul finds himself alone when a bomb lands near him, and he begins to feel helpless and afraid. He tries to shake it off but remains crouched in a shell hole. Finally, he hears Kat's voice nearby and is able to collect himself. He recognizes that his comrades give him hope because they share the same fears. He finally crawls out of the hole.

However, because this is his first patrol since he has returned from leave, Paul finds himself unable to get his bearings. An attack begins and he takes shelter in another shell hole, pretending to be dead in order not to be noticed. Suddenly, a French soldier falls into the hole, covering him. He plunges his dagger into him, but the man does not die. As he waits for the gunfire to cease, hours pass. Paul tries not to look at the man, but hears him choking on his own blood. Slowly dying, he looks Paul in the eyes. Paul strokes the man's forehead, trying to comfort him. He gives him some water and attempts to bandage his wound, but the man continues to worsen. Paul considers killing him to put him out of his misery, but cannot bring himself to stab the man again.

Paul faces the fact that this is the first time he has killed a man with his own hands, and he is solely responsible for his death. When the man finally dies, the silence afterward is unbearable to Paul. He imagines the man's life outside of war and he begins to speak to the corpse, telling the man that he didn't want to kill him and that he will make up for it. He says that before, he saw the man as an abstract enemy, but now he realizes he and the man are the same: "We always see it too late ... that you are poor devils like us." If they were not on opposing sides in a war, they could have been friends.

Paul locates the French soldier's wallet so he can write to the man's family but then hesitates. To know the man's name makes the man real. Paul discovers the man's name is Gerard Duval and that he was a printer. The wallet also contains family photos and letters. Paul decides that he can't bring himself to write to the man's family after all, but he still writes down the man's name and address.

Paul is finally able to crawl out of the shell hole once the bombardment ceases. Kat and Albert find him, and Paul doesn't mention the man he killed. But the next morning he feels the need to talk about it, and Kat and Albert try to calm him. They encourage him to forget the incident and move on.

Analysis

The men's experience seeing the Kaiser for the first time shows how detached those in power are from those who fight and die for their country. The men are unimpressed by the Kaiser, and it presses upon them the question of what, or who, in fact, they are fighting for. They decide that soldiers on all sides of the war are fighting for the exact same abstract reasons made up by those in power. Everyone is merely trying to protect their homeland. Those who directly benefit from the war aren't the ones who perform in actual combat, but their decisions have a catastrophic impact on millions of lives.

When Paul Bäumer finds himself alone, being without his comrades is the most frightening thing, because they help each other keep their emotions in check. With no one around to do this, he begins to spiral out of control and becomes vulnerable to the psychological impact of killing the French soldier who falls into his shell hole. For the first time, Paul must confront death in a personal way, as he realizes this is the first man he has killed face-to-face. The methods of World War I ensured that much of the killing took place at a distance, so this experience rattles Paul immensely. His emotions come alive in sympathy for the man, which feels almost unbearable to Paul. The immediate and personal toll the war takes on the lives of both the dead and those who kill becomes clear to him.

Paul's return to the front solidifies for him that his fellow comrades have become his family, and that they understand him in a way no one else can. They support each other in all ways, even when that means detaching themselves from their emotions as they do when they stumble upon the corpses hanging in the trees early in the chapter—a moment that contrasts heavily with Paul's emotional response to killing a French soldier who falls in his shell hole.

After Paul is reunited with his comrades, his anxiety and anguish over killing the man begin to recede as they help him rationalize his actions. He doesn't refer to the man by name, but only as "the dead printer," because to say the man's name makes him too real, threatening the emotional detachment Paul requires to deal with the war.

Remarque does not hesitate to include graphic imagery of the war's bloodbath in earlier chapters of the novel, but this chapter renders the experience of battle particularly vivid. It begins with a detailed description of the corpses in the trees, the bodies of soldiers that have been literally blown to pieces, the earth "black with blood." The description of Paul's ordeal in the shell holes utilizes sight, sound, and touch to convey the horror of being trapped in the midst of a raging battle and the slow death of the French soldier. These unsparing descriptions clearly align the effects of new combat technology with the psychological scars of battle.

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