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Destroyed but not Defeated

In the preface of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque writes “[All Quiet on the Western Front] will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Although many soldiers are defeated by artillery shells, all soldiers are destroyed by the war because of what the war has done to their mental stability and innocence. These men are damaged so much that many think it was better to die in the war than survive and live a damaged life of stress and isolation. As a result of entering the war, men transform from regular humans to beasts who are out to kill, which changes them more than any artillery shell ever could. Paul Bäumer is just one example of a character who is destroyed by the war because of the way he is isolated from society, transformed from a man into a beast, and devalued as a human.

Isolation

When Paul leaves home to fight in the war, he begins his new life away from society. The nationalist parents of Paul’s generation encouraged all young men to enlist in the war, and ended up influencing thousands of young men to give up their own lives for the empty goals of power and honor. The war changed these men by making them give up their potential lives as fathers, husbands, and role-models to their children. Paul is heavily affected by the war because he believes he is no longer an individual, but instead part of the troop that makes up his country. “We are at rest five miles behind the front,” Paul writes on the first page of the novel. Right away, Paul clarifies that he is not an individual by writing “we” instead of “I.” He confirms that he is nothing more than another soldier fighting for his country. When Paul goes back home, his behavior around his mother also shows how he is isolated. His mother refuses to believe that Kemmerich is dead because of how calmly Paul reacts to the situation, for she doesn’t understand that being a soldier transforms the way one looks at death. Paul sees the death of even his friend as nothing but a predicted occurrence, where his mother cannot believe the news and is extremely agonized by it. Paul is isolated from society, and therefore destroyed by the war, because he has lost a “normal” view of individuality, death, and tragedy.

Animalization

Paul and his friends enlist as innocent young men, and are transformed into beasts of war set out to kill. They are treated like animals in that they are fed generic food in mass amounts, and their rations are only doubled when another soldier dies. Paul comments on how soldiers seem to have a “second instinct” in them that makes them subconsciously dive their way out of shell attacks when close to death, showing that they have taken on an animal-like instinct of survival. These soldiers are no longer seen as individuals, but instead as packs of beasts with a mission to defeat the other beasts they see. Paul is implying that the war is a sub-human battle that relies on natural beast-like instinct to survive, and devalues the humanity of the soldiers. Paul is also seen as sub-human when he cannot relate to his friends and family back home because they have not gone through what he has in the war. He no longer thinks like non-soldiers, and is a completely different type of person. Animal-like instincts can also be seen when Himmelstoss tries to become the alpha-male and take control of Paul and his friends; like the leader of a pack. The war destroyed soldiers by causing them to lose their individuality and become nothing more than numbers, devaluing them as humans and giving them beast-like roles in the war.

Loss of Humanity

Paul and his friends are not only transformed into beasts, but also lose the idea of humanity and individuality. When Kemmerich dies and Paul tells his mother, he doesn’t even cringe at the thought. This is because the World War I soldiers were surrounded by death and it was seen as a common occurrence. When almost half of the soldiers that fought with Paul died, he was nearly unphased. However, Paul finally realizes what he is doing when he says, “Under one of the helmets a dark pointed beard and two eyes that are fastened on me. I raise my hand, but I cannot throw into those strange eyes” [113]. This is a paradigm shift in Paul's thinking, he finally treats the soldier he is attacking as an individual. The opponents soldiers are no longer just another target to him, but instead a man with a life of his own. For only a split second, he values the life of another human. However, the soldier-instinct inside of him causes him to forget about the idea of humanity. “Then the head rises up, a hand, a movement, and my hand-grenade flies through the air and into him,” [113] says Paul. He kills the opposing soldier even though he is able to see the man as an individual, and this is because of how the war has damaged and destroyed him. He is unable to think logically and cannot refrain from letting the soldier instincts inside of him take over, leading him to throw the grenade. This scene shows just how much Paul and the rest of the soldiers have been destroyed by the war, for it highlights how the soldiers devalue humanity.

Conclusion

Paul Bäumer is a great example of someone destroyed but not killed because of how the war isolates him from society, turns men into beasts, and devalues the life of a human. Paul is isolated from his relationships with his friends and family at home, and is no longer able to connect with non-soldiers. Paul becomes an animal because of how he is trained to defeat all enemies, despite the lives they could’ve lived. Paul also devalues humanity by seeing soldiers as nothing but another body to kill instead of an individual. Although Paul is not physically destroyed by the war, he is mentally destroyed through isolation, transformation, and devaluation.

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