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All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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All Quiet on the Western Front | Context


World War I

World War I spanned the years 1914–18, engulfing the European continent and beyond. The main conflict involved the Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey, which faced off against the Allies, including France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States. While war had been brewing on the European continent, the spark that started the war was the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Austria-Hungary, with Germany as its ally, then declared war on Serbia. Russia joined soon thereafter as Serbia's ally, with France and Great Britain following suit, and the United States joining the Allies in 1917.

The strategies and weapons used to fight World War I were more technologically advanced than those of previous wars. Armies used machine guns and other rapid-fire weapons, tanks, and chemical warfare in the form of nerve gas for the first time in combat. Such weapons swiftly created record numbers of mass casualties. Approximately nine million men died, and the total casualties (including those killed, wounded, taken prisoner, and missing) numbered more than half of the soldiers fighting in World War I. The new technology also ensured that much of the killing took place at a distance. In fact, opposing troops were much less likely to clash face-to-face as they had previously done on a traditional battlefield.

In order to protect themselves from this barrage, each side dug a series of parallel trenches in the earth, then tried to wear down the other side with bombardments so they could gain ground and send their soldiers ahead on foot. This led to slow and painful advances, and to high death tolls in which bodies piled up in "No Man's Land," the space between opposing trenches. Soldiers frequently remained in the often muddy trenches for days with rats and lice, causing even more to die from the disease-infested conditions.

These new war strategies took a much larger mental toll on soldiers than in previous wars, and the notion that dying for one's country was a patriotic duty began to suffer as soldiers witnessed the mass carnage around them.

Shell Shock

The term shell shock was coined by soldiers to describe the psychological effects of battle during World War I. The fighting and bombardment of trench warfare were so relentless that doctors began noticing soldiers becoming afflicted with anxiety, nightmares, fatigue, and impaired sight and hearing. Many of them didn't have physical wounds that might explain these symptoms, so the doctors chalked up their symptoms to "nervous and mental shock." However, because the condition remained largely misunderstood, some of the soldiers afflicted with shell shock were mistakenly tried for desertion and cowardice.

British medical officer Charles S. Myers studied the condition during the war and developed a treatment plan that included prompt treatment and psychotherapy. The army allowed him to set up four specialist units in December 1916 to manage milder cases of shell shock; more severe cases were treated at base hospitals.

Today, shell shock is recognized as a forerunner of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a medical condition that can occur in anyone who has experienced a traumatic event such as war. PTSD is marked by a difficulty adjusting to civilian life because the brain, still convinced it is experiencing the original trauma, is on constant high alert for danger. The condition also causes individuals to feel alienated from those around them because they are unable to discuss their experiences or the emotions surrounding them. In All Quiet on the Western Front, narrator Paul Bäumer refuses to discuss his combat experience with his family, fearing that his emotions will overcome him if he does.


Remarque's realistic depiction of the way World War I was fought and his characterization of Paul as the antithesis of the stereotypical war hero had a profound effect on the way World War I was viewed. Even though Remarque writes in his Author's Note that the novel does not endorse any political stance about the war, the novel was heralded as antiwar and embraced by pacifists. The novel also brought to light both the psychological and physical trials that soldiers went through, helping readers understand the enormous mental strain that soldiers endured. It also helped draw attention to the treatment of war veterans, many of whom had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after their traumatic experiences during wartime.

Interestingly, Remarque's novel was released in the same year as Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway's novel was based to some extent on his experience as an ambulance driver in World War I and, like Remarque's, painted a negative picture of the war. Remarque's novel, along with Hemingway's, freed later authors to write about war from a more critical perspective. Some of the authors who also wrote novels that are critical of war include James Jones (From Here to Eternity, 1951 and The Thin Red Line, 1962), Günter Grass (The Tin Drum, 1959), Joseph Heller (Catch-22, 1961), Kurt Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle, 1963 and Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969), and Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried, 1990).

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