All Quiet on the Wasteland
All Quiet on the Western Front drops the reader right into the Great War. Here we follow a young German soldier, Paul Baumer, as he takes up a journey of self-discovery. Remarque, through Baumer, allows the reader a glimpse into the young and impressionable minds of the soldiers during the battles of World War I. The text describes not only the atrocities of war but also the hopelessness these men felt. The soldiers struggled to understand the reasoning behind the war, and they also tried to carve for themselves some hope beyond the war. Throughout the novel, Baumer shows his detachment from humanity. Sometimes he likens himself and his fellow soldiers to animals, and other times he understands that being a soldier is something completely different than being a human. Through it all, Baumer realizes his disillusionment and that he will never be the same, no matter how the war ends. Remarque takes a modernist approach in All Quiet on the Western Front which followed the terrors brought out during the war. This approach allows a nice parallel to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? – T.S. Eliot
Initially, Baumer is critical of the male elders. These men called Baumer and his peers the Iron Youth. In response he states, “Iron Youth. Youth! We are none of us more than twenty years old. But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk.” (Remarque 10). The recruiters and teachers took something from these boys that they themselves never had to sacrifice. Baumer felt that “they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity” (7). “The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief” (7). The older men, the ones who convinced these boys to give their all for Social Darwinism ideals, had real lives before the war and were therefore more likely to fall back into that rhythm of being. “We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. For the others, the older men, it is but an interruption” (11). Baumer and his friends try to determine the reasoning for the war in Chapter Nine, but in the end they come to the conclusion that “the wrong people do the fighting” (22). They had been deceived by the very people they trusted the most, “And that is why they let us down so badly” (7).
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. – T.S. Eliot
In the terrors of the war, Baumer detached himself from his humanity and instead gave himself and his fellow soldiers animalistic qualities. “By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness” (27). To view the war through an unfiltered lens could drive the men insane, and they protected themselves using whatever mentality it required to survive. “Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line, because that is the only thing which brings us through safely” (65). The way in which these troops were treated lends itself to feeling little more than an animal, an unthinking and reactionary creature used up for the cause of man in his Great War. “They flock together like sheep instead of scattering, and even the wounded are shot down like hares by the airmen” (61). Baumer, himself, recalls, “I feel like a pig” (125). A man can kill an animal without much regret or loathing for his actions, however to kill a man for no reason other than the commands and decrees of unseen leaders is something else entirely.
I had not thought death had undone so many. –T.S. Eliot
To Baumer being a soldier was something far different than being a man, and in some ways one could never be both. His troop, his outfit, and the war began to define him. “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life” (106). Baumer speaks about his uniform and the manner in which it transforms him from a skinny and malnourished boy into something far more intimidating, a German soldier. As the troops press forward into battle, Baumer recalls that they more closely resembled “A column–not men at all”. When he returns home while on leave, he laments, “I used to live in this room before I was a soldier”. Here we can see that he believed it was impossible for him to be the person he once was. The war had stolen his identity and left only the husk of soldier. “But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world”. In the end, Baumer felt more comfortable on the battlefield than he did in his own hometown. The transformation was complete.
Baumer is detached from his humanity during his time serving in the war. He understands that the war has left nothing for him. He speaks of his mother “Who else is there that has any claim on me but you.” However, Baumer allowed the recruiters and teachers to steal that claim. He is stuck somewhere between youth and manhood. In Chapter One he speaks of not being a youth anymore, yet in Chapter Seven he laments, “I would like to weep and be comforted too, indeed I am little more than a child.” Although Baumer is convinced that the war has rendered him something less than human, his actions while on leave back home suggest something quite different. He denies his mother’s claims that the war is bad with the gas and everything. He swears to Kemmerich’s mother that he died quickly and without pain. All of these things suggest that Baumer has not lost his humanity during the war. In fact, it could be argued that being on the front lines and experiencing death in such an intimate fashion has rendered him more in tune with the realities of what it means to be human. Society focuses on truth, yet truth has no place in the words spoken to parents dealing with the loss of their children. The truth is something cold and calculated, and serves not the individual. In some ways, Baumer’s truth is the war, and he “would swear to anything” to keep those back home from that truth. “We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a waste land.”