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All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University explains the symbols in Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

All Quiet on the Western Front | Symbols


Remarque uses symbolism to convey the complex responses of his characters to the horrors of war.


World War I marked a considerable change in how wars were fought. For the most part, men did not fight in hand-to-hand combat as was common in earlier wars. With the advent of machine guns, hand grenades, tanks, gas warfare, bombs, and airplanes, the soldiers built trenches to protect themselves. The new weaponry was designed to annihilate large numbers of men at one time; it had the additional effect of causing psychological damage. The soldiers knew they lived by chance alone; any incoming bomb may or may not harm them. The term "shell shock" was created to name the emotional condition that many of the survivors suffered. Just as the weapons kept the opposing soldiers more or less isolated from each other, Paul Bäumer and his comrades discuss how the rulers of the countries who declared war were isolated from and unaware of the realities of trench warfare.

Butterflies and Nature

The novel includes imagery of the natural landscape, animals, and butterflies and other insects on numerous occasions. Even on the front lines, Paul Bäumer manages to notice geese flying over during a bombardment, butterflies, and the changing of the seasons. The butterflies come to represent innocence, happiness, and order within nature as they contrast with the observation balloons and the skulls that litter the battlefield. They also represent that the men's lives are especially fragile and vulnerable to death during war.

Paul describes the earth as holding and protecting the soldiers like a mother when they are forced to take cover in the trenches. The few memories Paul can endure thinking about have to do with natural settings he played in as a child, and such scenes are the only things that bring him comfort when he goes home on leave—everything else feels foreign to him.

However, in this novel, nature is not always kind—sometimes it contributes to the soldiers' suffering. Storms, heat, and mud plague the soldiers. They must also contend with rats and lice. Rats play a particularly horrific role in the novel, growing fat from eating the men's rations and feeding off the corpses of dead soldiers. Lice are disease-carrying vermin that also afflict the men at every turn, threatening to cause even more casualties. Nature, like everything else in the novel, can be subject to the dictates of war.


Food is a primal human need. In the midst of horrific violence and death, references to food appear repeatedly in the novel as a reminder of the soldiers' need to survive but also to find comfort and pleasure. Sharing a meal also symbolizes their camaraderie. In these respects, food represents one of the last vestiges of their humanity. Good, nourishing food is often in short supply at the front where it is rationed. As the novel opens, the men have just finished eating beef and green beans, experiencing a rare feeling during wartime of being "satisfied and at peace." But food, like everything else, cannot escape the war's influence. The delicious meal the men consume is a result of extra rations produced after 70 members of their regiment were wounded or died in battle.

Kemmerich's Boots and Clothing

Franz Kemmerich's boots are passed from one soldier to the next in an effort to defy death because the boots outlive each owner: Franz Müller gets them from Kemmerich, and Paul Bäumer gets them from Müller. At the same time, the boots come to represent the fleetingness of life because the boots last longer and are somehow more valuable than the lives of their owners. In addition, the practical notion of needing good boots during warfare supersedes the compassion one soldier might feel over the death of another.

Other items of clothing become significant in the novel, too, because it is a reminder of one of the human body's most basic needs: to be protected from the elements. Uniforms, including helmets and boots, play significant roles in the soldiers' lives. Uniforms represent the men's role in the military. Sometimes the uniforms protect the soldiers or help them do their jobs, but just as often they fail to protect them from the barrage of bullets and shells they encounter. The ownership or condition of pieces of clothing also symbolizes the soldiers' relationship to one another and their state of mind about the war around them. When he is home on leave, Paul is uncomfortable with his father's request that he wear his uniform but also feels awkward when he first puts on civilian clothes. Either way, after his experience in the war, neither outfit reflects who he is.

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