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All Quiet on the Western Front | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In All Quiet on the Western Front, how does the new military technology used in World War I affect soldiers?

The new military technology used in World War I included rapid-fire weapons and other machinery, such as tanks, which allowed both sides to barrage each other with massive amounts of bullets, shells, and toxic gas, resulting in very high casualty and death rates. These new weapons inspired extensive use of trench warfare so the troops could dig into the earth to protect themselves. This ensured that troops on both sides remained geographically far apart rather than facing each other directly on a shared battlefield. Soldiers could be wounded and killed from a great distance away without even seeing or being seen by the opposing forces, which made their existence as human beings easier to ignore and their deaths easier to dismiss. The massive carnage and mechanical, dehumanizing methods represented by these technological advances took a much larger mental toll on soldiers than in previous wars. Paul Bäumer and his friends, for example, are exhausted and traumatized by the violence and destruction produced that they witness on the front lines. As a result, they begin to question the notion that dying for one's country is a patriotic duty, and become increasingly alienated and despairing.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 6 who do the soldiers believe are their true enemies in the war?

The German soldiers consider their true enemies in the war to be the authority figures who ordered the war and death itself. The German soldiers recognize that soldiers on the opposing side are not really their enemies, but are, like themselves, merely following their commanders' orders. They begin to see over the course of the novel that the enemy is actually an abstract concept used to justify the war by men in power who will never see combat themselves. It is these men whose decision has resulted in so much destruction that the soldiers come to call their enemy. A second real enemy of everyone involved in fighting the war is death itself, which threatens soldiers on both sides of the conflict. In Chapter 6, Paul Bäumer recounts during battle that "it is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down." The soldiers on both sides of the conflict will do whatever it takes to survive, even at a terrible emotional cost to themselves.

Why are Paul Bäumer and his comrades anxious about the war ending in All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 5?

Men in Paul Bäumer's generation were referred to as the "Lost Generation" in the aftermath of World War I. Millions were killed or permanently disabled by the war. Others were simply unable to reconnect to civilian life after the horrors they experienced. The war has become the only thing Paul and his comrades know how to do. They have a hard time imagining anything apart from fighting, and therefore find it challenging to make a normal transition to adult life. What they have seen in combat has alienated them so deeply from themselves and from the lives they knew, that imagining a constructive future becomes increasingly impossible for them. They are "lost" because they no longer see how they can belong anywhere.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 3 when Paul and his friends beat Himmelstoss, what does it reveal about them?

A lowly postman in civilian life, Corporal Himmelstoss is now drunk with his newfound power as a corporal in the German army. Himmelstoss has used his superior rank to humiliate Paul Bäumer and his comrades, especially Tjaden. Himmelstoss's relentless focus on power and dominance reflects that of the German military and of the war itself, in which men are sacrificed heartlessly in what Paul and his comrades later suspect is no more than a quest for power. However, when Paul and his friends beat Himmelstoss, they are doing more than getting simple revenge on someone who has mistreated them. The beating reveals how they have internalized the very system of dominance and submission that Himmelstoss represents. They, too, have been infected by the brutality of the war and military life. As Paul notes, "Himmelstoss ought to have been pleased ... We had become successful students of his method." The beating of Himmelstoss is especially savage and humiliating. The soldiers take enormous pleasure in rendering Himmelstoss helpless by throwing a blanket over him, then pulling down his pants and taking turns whipping him. Paul describes how Tjaden is so enthused at beating Himmelstoss that "we had to drag him away to get our turn." The urge for power, even in a case of revenge against an abuser, is a powerful drug.

How does All Quiet on the Western Front address the roles of honor, duty, and glory in fighting a war?

Paul Bäumer and his comrades sign up to fight in the war straight out of high school based on the ideals of honor, duty, and glory that adult men they admired, like their teacher Kantorek, fed them. Once the young men realize the brutal and dehumanizing carnage they have signed on for, it overshadows any sense of honor or glory they might feel in fighting for their country. They also begin to recognize that the people in power who decided to go to war are not the same men who fight in the war, and that they are not concerned with the realities of combat or its effect on the soldiers. Civilians in Germany also remain ignorant of actual events on the battlefield. This ignorance makes their emphasis on the glory and patriotism of the war seem hypocritical. The soldiers continue to do their duty as they fight on the front lines, but they do it grudgingly, questioning the terms of the war among themselves. In a war that is like a cruel machine, they fight as if they are programmed to do so, like robots. Rather than rewarding them with honor or glory, the war takes a terrible psychological toll on them.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, what is Paul's relationship to empathy?

As the novel opens, Paul Bäumer is presented as a young man who has already become desensitized to the brutality of what he has witnessed in order to survive. As the novel progresses, Paul only grows more alienated, anxious, and detached from his emotions, but his ability to feel, particularly through his compassion for others, refuses to die. In fact, Paul's ability to feel empathy appears to increase alongside his growing alienation, and he is frequently torn between the two emotions, particularly in the novel's later chapters in which he demonstrates new dimensions of empathy for the enemy and for wounded soldiers. In Chapter 8, Paul empathizes with the suffering of the Russian prisoners he is assigned to guard. When he kills French soldier Gerard Duval in Chapter 9, Paul suddenly understands that he and the man he has killed are equally human, and he can no longer see the French soldier as an enemy. In Chapter 10, Paul takes careful notice of the suffering of several of the other soldiers who are patients in the hospital, and comforts his friend, Kropp, who has his leg amputated. Paul never resolves the conflict between empathy and alienation, but the inability to do so demonstrates how the war cannot stifle his humanity.

What is the effect of having a first-person narrator in All Quiet on the Western Front rather than a third-person narrator?

Remarque provides an unflinching look at the personal toll the war took on individual soldiers. The effect of having Paul Bäumer narrate his own story rather than a third-person narrator lends the novel an honest and personal insight into the psychological suffering he and others endure in the war. The reader is able to see Paul's reactions and thoughts up close as the actions of the story occur, and is able to understand and sympathize with his anguish and doubt. A third-person narrator might strike a more objective tone and provide more insights about the thoughts and feelings of the other characters as well, but it would not be able to give such a personal and moving account. This contrast in point of view is used to great effect when Remarque includes a third-person narrator in Chapter 12 to convey the news of Paul's death in a detached and matter-of-fact way. After spending so much time immersed in the first-person narration of Paul's innermost thoughts and feelings, this sudden shift to a detached, objective narrator drives home how heartless and depersonalizing war really is. Paul's first-person narration is unsparing, but it steadily asserts the humanity of the soldiers in the face of an inhuman war, even as he faces the emotional costs of that war to himself.

How does Himmelstoss change over the course of All Quiet on the Western Front?

Himmelstoss initially represents the abuse of military power. He is brutal and cruel in his training of the soldiers, although he has not seen combat himself. He punishes Tjaden for bed-wetting by having him bunk with another bed-wetter, which only shames and enrages Tjaden. Himmelstoss forces the soldiers to perform exhausting exercises to the point of collapse, and has little sympathy for their pains—he seems to delight in torturing them sadistically. When Paul Bäumer finally encounters him on the front lines in Chapter 6, however, Himmelstoss appears to be a hypocrite, attempting to hide himself from the attack until Paul forces him to rejoin the battle. As the fighting continues, Himmelstoss suddenly changes course, bravely carrying a wounded Haie to safety. By Chapter 7, Himmelstoss has become friendly and kind to the men, symbolically taking on the more nurturing position of cook and offering them sugar and butter.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, what does Paul mean by "terror can be endured so long as a man ducks; but it kills if he thinks about it"?

In Chapter 7, Paul is finally able to receive some relief from the front lines when he is given leave to return home for a few weeks. But rather than being able to relax, he is occupied with what he has witnessed on the front lines and how he has managed to survive. His thoughts here about how to endure terror reveal that he relies on the idea that physical instinct is what will carry a man through—the instinct to duck and dodge or stay still to avoid injury and death. But the minute a man starts to consider what is happening in battle on an intellectual or emotional level, he will become distracted and unsure, even obsessing about it to the point of doubt and madness. Doing so will almost certainly make him more vulnerable to injury or death in a combat situation, so Paul decides it is better not to think or feel too much in the face of battle.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 5 what does Paul Bäumer mean when he tells Kropp that he "can't see anything at all" in their futures?

Paul Bäumer and Albert Kropp are discussing what they will do with their lives after the war, and Kropp conjectures that even if they do make it out of the war alive, it won't matter. Paul agrees that he has a hard time envisioning their futures, because he he has no experience as anything other than a student or a soldier, and because he finds the kinds of "professions and studies and salaries" sickening. Their discontent and uncertainty reflect not only their lack of experience, but also a foreboding sense that what they have witnessed in war has ruined them in a fundamental way. Even though they are young, they have witnessed enough horror to affect their civilian lives for years to come, perhaps permanently.

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