All Quiet on the Western Front | Study Guide

Erich Maria Remarque

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

All Quiet on the Western Front | Themes


Modern Warfare

Previously, many literary works about war emphasized its idealistic aspects, such as honor, glory, and patriotism. World War I introduced an arsenal of new, powerful weaponry, such as mustard gas and machine guns, that could inflict carnage on a mass level.

All Quiet on the Western Front describes the unique physical effects of World War I in unsparing detail with its numerous graphic descriptions of horrific war wounds and decimated corpses. It also focuses on the often negative physical conditions the soldiers must face in their camps when they return from the front lines.

In addition, the novel offers an unflinching depiction of the damaging psychological effects of war on its soldiers. Remarque portrays how witnessing death on this level affects soldiers' sanity and emotional well-being. Paul Bäumer and his comrades become deeply alienated from themselves, their country, and their families as they try to deaden their emotions in order to merely survive from day to day. Other soldiers go insane or desert.

The Lost Generation

In the 1920s, American writer Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway that he and other members of his generation who came of age during World War I were a "lost generation." Paul Bäumer worries often throughout the novel that his generation is irrevocably "lost" due to their experience in the war. He and his friends enlisted in the army straight out of high school, and their entire adult lives have been consumed by battle. They have no careers or families to return to when the war is over, and their experiences during the war guarantee that adjusting to civilian life will be difficult at best. The men are also left to ponder what their experience in the trenches was good for, particularly because the war they fought was not one they necessarily believed in. Their future feels just as lost as their past.


World War I begins, in some ways, as an act of patriotism: the idea that a national identity is tied to the individual identities of its people. Paul Bäumer and his friends join the army based on this idea as well. However, the horrors of war quickly subvert this idea of patriotism as the war becomes less and less about country and more and more about individual survival. In the end, Paul realizes that the real enemies are not the opposing soldiers but the powerful governments that sacrifice individual soldiers over bids for power and glory.


Though the overall depiction of war in the novel is one of horror, dehumanization, and death, the camaraderie between Paul Bäumer and his comrades is the one ray of hope that keeps them going throughout the terrible ordeal of the war. Their collective experience bonds them in an intense way that civilian friends and family can never touch or comprehend, because the majority of their shared experience is one of intense suffering and survival. Paul's humanity shines beyond his deadened emotions when talking about his friends or showing compassion to a new recruit. Paul also experiences empathy, or a recognition of the suffering of other people, at surprising moments in the novel, including to the Russian prisoners, to a French soldier he kills, and to the patients in a military hospital.

Empathy versus Alienation

In response to the brutality of war, the soldiers struggle between empathy (their ability to feel compassion for the suffering of others) and alienation (being cut off from the rest of humanity and from themselves). The soldiers must often disconnect from their own emotions in order to survive the horrors they experience and the constant threat of being wounded or killed. They come to feel alienated from their families and their friends, and lose all hope for the future. However, there are flashes of empathy. The soldiers befriend and look out for each other's welfare. Paul Bäumer, who is deeply disillusioned by the war, often expresses his alienation. Nonetheless, he acts empathetically on many occasions, such as comforting a former classmate who is dying from his war wounds.

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