Paul Baumer enlisted with his classmates in the German army of World War I. Youthful, enthusiastic, they become soldiers. But despite what they have learned, they break into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. And as horrible war plods on year after year, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principles of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other–if only he can come out of the war alive.
“The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.”
There are a ton of characters in this novel, but not all of them make a big enough impression to review, unfortunately. I’m just going to go through a list of the ones I noted, and the role they played.
Paul Baumer | Narrator—German. Nineteen when him and a group of schoolmates volunteer to go to war. Baumer is placed in the No. 9 platoon with Kropp, Muller, and Kemmerich, and they’re placed under Corporal Himmelstoss. Paul is such a strong yet flawed main character. There are many instances in the novel where he wants to take back something he did. I’m sure that not a lot of people thought that during wartime. I enjoyed seeing that side of him. He had a good head on his shoulders.
Albert Kropp | Nineteen-years old. The clear thinker of the group. He has a lot of thoughts about the war and why it even exists. Kropp believes that the ministers and generals should duke it out with each other, and whoever survives wins the war.
“That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.”
Albert is one of my favorites out of the group of boys. He has a strong opinion—although a little stubborn at times—he sticks up for what he thinks is right and wrong. I’m happy he wasn’t just a robot who was only there to kill and shoot guns.
Leer | Nineteen-years old. Part of the group of volunteered boys.
Muller | Nineteen-years old. He carries around his textbooks and speaks physics while at war.
Tjaden | The skinny locksmith and biggest eater. This boy never stops talking about food or trying to eat all the food. I honestly didn’t have many thoughts about Tjaden throughout the book. I
Franz Kemmorich | He is another comrade in the war. His leg is amputated, and right from the start the reader understands that there is no hope for him. He has boots stored under his bed because he’s in denial. Paul keeps telling him that he’ll make it home all the way up to his dying breath. Before he dies, Franz tells Paul that he always wanted to be a head-forester, and he can take the boots to Muller.
Haie Westhus | He used to be a peat-digger before going to war.
Joseph Behm | He is the one boy who didn’t want to go to war, but the fear of being a coward pushed him to go. He is hit in the eye during an attack and left for dead. He actually survives and tries to crawl through No Man’s Land and is shot down.
“The whole world ought to pass by this bed and say: “That is Franz Kemmerich, nineteen and a half years old, he doesn’t want to die. Let him not die!”
This happened in the beginning of the book, and I immediately knew that it was only going to become more heart-breaking as the plot progressed.
Corporal Himmelstoss | Leader of platoon No. 9. Has the reputation of being a strict disciplinarian. He has seen twelve years of service, and quite frankly he isn’t fond of Kropp, Tjaden, Paul, or Westhus. That’s okay though, he eventually wants to make friends with them later in the novel. He finally experiences the trenches, and it completely changes him. The kids are no longer swine after his views are flipped.
“To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier.”
The group of boys were trained for ten weeks before going out to the front lines. One kid actually dies from inflammation of the lung.
Things remain pretty quiet on the front lines until the first bombardment. The first one actually changed their view of the war completely. It killed five men and wounded eight.
They need more men, so recruits start showing up, and most of them are two-years younger than the main group.
The Company Commander pulls Paul out to tell him that he will have 17 days to go back home to his family, then he will come back and train for a few weeks. So, Paul goes back to visit his ill mother, eldest sister—Erna, and his father. It doesn’t really go as planned. Everyone wants him to talk about the war and wear his uniform. Tram cars sound like the shriek of a shell. He would much rather be with his comrades—his best friends. It feels wrong to even wear civilian clothes again. I’m not sure if PTSD was even a thing back in 1917.
When Paul goes back into the front lines, he is all alone. He’s lost and in a hole, and it’s quite possibly an enemy hole. He ends up killing an enemy, but he immediately regrets it because he realizes that he just killed a human. The next quote is quite long, but it hit me so hard in the feels:
“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, and abstraction that lived in mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was the abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up—take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
This scene is so hard to read. Paul doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t want to kill anyone either. Seeing the enemy in person is different compared to just shooting into the distance. He tries to save the man with no luck. Baumer has such a big heart that is not made for war, but he tries SO hard to do the best he can. He is my favorite person in the story.
So many man start to fall as the story comes to a close. I don’t want to spoil anything about what happens to who, but eventually it just ends up being little ole Paul. He’s the last of the seven from his class. His comrades have all fallen, and there’s not much else he can do.
SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT – SPOILER ALERT
Paul dies in October 1918. If I’m not mistaken, WWI actually ends in November of that same year. He almost made it. I think that was the most frustrating part of the ending. He never got to see the peace that was mentioned so often throughout the novel.
“He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”
I was heartbroken but also relieved. It was brutal, and I’m sure a month in a war feels like an eternity. I’m sad he didn’t get to witness any peace, but he found some relief anyway.
This novel is translated by A.W. Wheen and can get a little convoluted at times. It mostly happens when there is a lot of description or some form of internal thought. The dialogue is pretty easy to follow, for the most part.
I just loved this so much that I didn’t even care if it took me five minutes to read a paragraph.
This is definitely a new all-time favorite read for me. The characters are complex, compelling, and smart. It’s heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, and insightful. I learned so much about what WWI was like. I know that it doesn’t really compare to actually being there. I’m sure there are grittier novels, but I think this focused a lot more on the mindset of these young boys who were pressured to go to war. PTSD isn’t ever mentioned because I’m sure no one knew what that was. It’s one you just have to pick up and read without much thought. I’m sure it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I just like to rave about good books.
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