Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel
set in World War I, centers around the changes wrought by the war on
one young German soldier. During his time in the war, Remarque’s
protagonist, Paul Baumer, changes from a rather innocent Romantic to a
hardened and somewhat caustic veteran. More importantly, during the
course of this metamorphosis, Baumer disaffiliates himself from those
societal icons—parents, elders, school, religion—that had been the
foundation of his pre-enlistment days. This rejection comes about as a
result of Baumer’s realization that the pre-enlistment society simply
does not understand the reality of the Great War. His new society,
then, becomes the Company, his fellow trench soldiers, because that is
a group which does understand the truth as Baumer has experienced it.

Remarque demonstrates Baumer’s disaffiliation from the
traditional by emphasizing the language of Baumer’s
pre- and post-enlistment societies. Baumer either can not, or chooses
not to, communicate truthfully with those representatives of his
pre-enlistment and innocent days. Further, he is repulsed by the banal
and meaningless language that is used by members of that society. As
he becomes alienated from his former, traditional, society, Baumer
simultaneously is able to communicate effectively only with his
military comrades. Since the novel is told from the first person point
of view, the reader can see how the words Baumer speaks are at
variance with his true feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarque
maintains that “a generation of men … were destroyed by the war”
(Remarque, All Quiet Preface). Indeed, in All Quiet on the Western
Front, the meaning of language itself is, to a great extent,

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Early in the novel, Baumer notes how his elders had been facile
with words prior to his enlistment. Specifically, teachers and parents
had used words, passionately at times, to persuade him and other young
men to enlist in the war effort. After relating the tale of a teacher
who exhorted his students to enlist, Baumer states that “teachers
always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat pockets, and trot
them out by the hour” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Baumer admits that
he, and others, were fooled by this rhetorical trickery. Parents,
too, were not averse to using words to shame their sons into
enlisting. “At that time even one’s parents were ready with the
word ‘coward'” (Remarque, All Quiet I. 15). Remembering those days,
Baumer asserts that, as a result of his war experiences, he has
learned how shallow the use of these words was.
Indeed, early in his enlistment, Baumer comprehends that although
authority figures taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest
thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all
that, we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards—they were very
free with these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we
went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the
false from true, we had suddenly learned to see. (Remarque, All Quiet
I. 17)
What Baumer and his comrades have learned is that the words and
expressions used by the pillars of society do not reflect the reality
of war and of one’s participation in it. As the novel progresses,
Baumer himself uses words in a similarly false fashion.

A number of instances of Baumer’s own misuse of language occur
during an important episode in the novel—a period of leave when he
visits his home town. This leave is disastrous for Baumer because he
realizes that he can not communicate with the people on the home front
because of his military experiences and their limited, or nonexistent,
understanding of the war.

When he first enters his house, for example, Baumer is
overwhelmed at being home. His joy and relief are such that he cannot
speak; he can only weep (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 140). When he and
his mother greet each other, he realizes immediately that he has
nothing to say to her: “We say very little and I am thankful that she
asks nothing” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 141). But finally she does
speak to him and asks, “‘Was it very bad out there, Paul?'” (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 143).

Here, when he answers, he lies, ostensibly to protect her from
hearing of the chaotic conditions from which he has just returned. He
thinks tohimself,
Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not
understand, you could never realize it. And you never shall
realize it. Was it bad, you ask.—You, Mother,–I shake my
head and say: “No, Mother, not so very. There are always a
lot of us together so it isn’t so bad.”
(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 143)
Even in trying to protect her, by using words that are false,
Baumer creates a separation between his mother and
himself. Clearly, as Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not for the
uninitiated. On another level, however, Baumer cannot respond to his
mother’s question: he understands that the experiences he has had are
so overwhelming that a “civilian” language, or any language at all,
would be ineffective in describing them. Trying to replicate the
experience and horrors of the war via words is impossible, Baumer
realizes, and so he lies. Any attempt at telling the truth would, in
fact, trivialize its reality.

During the course of his leave, Baumer also sees his father. The
fact that he does not wish to speak with his parent (i.e., use few or
no words at all) shows Baumer’s movement away from the traditional
institution of the family. Baumer reports that his father “is curious
about the war in a way that I find stupid and distressing; I no
longer have any real contact with him” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146).
In considering the demands of his father to discuss the war, Baumer,
once again, realizes the impossibility, and, in this case, even the
danger, of trying to relate the reality of the war via language.

There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I
realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I
would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put
these things into words. I am afraid they might then become
gigantic and I be no longer able to master them.

(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146)
Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the experience of
war meaningful within a verbal context: the war is too big, the words
describing it would have to be correspondingly immense and, with their
symbolic size, might become uncontrollable and, hence, meaningless.

While with his father, Baumer meets other men who are certain
that they know how to fight and win the war. Ultimately, Baumer says
of his father and of these men that “they talk too much for me …
They understand of course, they agree, they may even feel it so too,
but only with words, only with words” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 149).
Baumer is driven away from the older men because he understands that
the words of his father’s generation are meaningless in that they do
not reflect the realities of the world and of the war as Baumer has
come to understand them.

Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallen
comrade, Kemmerich. As he did with his own mother, he lies, this time
in an attempt to shield her from the details of her son’s lingering
death. Moreover, in this conversation, we see Baumer rejecting yet
another one of the traditional society’s foundations: religious
orthodoxy. He assures Kemmerich’s mother that her son “‘died
immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite
calm'” (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). Frau Kemmerich doesn’t believe
him, or, at least, chooses not to. She asks him to swear “by
everything that is sacred to” him (that is, to God, as far as she is
concerned) that what he says is true (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160).
He does so easily because he realizes that nothing is sacred to him.
By perverting this oath, Baumer shows both his unwillingness to
communicate honestly with a member of the home front and his rejection
of the God of that society. Thus, another break with an aspect of his
pre-enlistment society is effected through Baumer’s conscious misuse
of language.

During his leave, perhaps Baumer’s most striking realization of
the vacuity of words in his former society occurs when he is alone in
his old room in his parents’ house. After being unsuccessful in
feeling a part of his old society by speaking with his mother and his
father and his father’s friends, Baumer attempts to reaffiliate with
his past by once again becoming a resident of the place. Here, among
his mementos, the pictures and postcards on the wall, the familiar and
comfortable brown leather sofa, Baumer waits for something that will
allow him to feel a part of his pre-enlistment world. It is his old
schoolbooks that symbolize that older, more contemplative, less
military world and which Baumer hopes will bring him back to his
younger innocent ways.
I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same
powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my
books. The breath of desire that then arose from the colored
backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead
lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the
impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought,
it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit
and wait.