The historical-fiction novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque describes the atrocities of World War I from the perspective of the Germans. The war started in 1914 and lasted till 1918, nationalism being a large contributor towards the starting of this war. Across these 4 years there was a casualty count of over 40 million. The slaughter and destruction was so great that it was branded as “the war to end all wars.” In 1917, The author was drafted into this atrocious war at the age of 18. With the experience he gained, he sought to highlight the atrocities of the war, many of which are seemingly compiled into this novel. Through the eyes of Paul Bäumer, the audience witnesses much of the author’s personal experiences. This includes the horrible conditions of the trenches, the extreme lack of food, and the mass amounts of casualties. However, on a deeper level, the author is commenting on the issue of nationalism in society. This is shown through the use of literary devices such as irony, imagery, and dialogue.
Among other literary devices, irony best demonstrates the issue of nationalism. This is first shown when Paul recalls his past as a student, “… He used to glare at us through his spectacles and say in a moving voice: ‘Won’t you join up, Comrades’ … Strange to say, Behm was one of the first to fall” (Remarque 11, 12). This quote displays Kantorek as he attempts to influence his students into joining the war effort. This proves ironic because as the scene unfolds, the audience learns that Joseph Behm, the only unwilling student in which Kantorek recruited, is one of the first of the second company to die, what brings Behm into the war is the reason for his death. Despite Behm being quite hesitant to join the war effort, he is pressured into believing that it is almost traitorous to his country to not join the war effort. “But he did allow himself to be persuaded, otherwise he would have been ostracized” (11). This demonstrates the issue of nationalism, as it is being used here as a tool to recruit much of the populace towards the awful cause that is the war, and in Behm’s case, force those who are unwilling to join.
Because of the deaths of their classmates, Paul and his friends learn to distrust Kantorek and nationalists alike. This is shown when the author states, “Yes, that’s the way they think, these hundred thousand Kantoreks! Iron Youth! Youth! We are none of us more than twenty years old. But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk” (18). This depicts the scene in which the group of young men humor the letter Kantorek has sent referring to his students as the iron youth. Paul displays his hatred towards Kantorek as he brands all nationalists as Kantorek, the one that had prodded them into joining the war effort. In addition, the quote shows the hardships that has been brought upon Paul due to the war, in which they were tricked into joining, believing that it would demonstrate their nationalism, as he laughs at being called young believing that he has experienced enough to be considered an old man. But, Irony is not the only literary device used to display the problem of nationalism.
Imagery also helps to display the issue of nationalism. This is first seen when the author writes, “We were still crammed full of vague ideas which gave to life, and to the war also an ideal and almost romantic character… We recognized that what matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill” (21, 22). This scene depicts Paul recalling his past life and how naive he once was. What is stated here by the author helps to instill the image in the audience’s head that everything Paul previously knew is now seemingly insignificant. In addition, it seems as if this scene teaches Paul and his friends to believe that true patriotism comes in the form of blind submission as he is forced to relinquish his freedom. This displays how nationalism is exploitable as Paul and the other students at the academy naively joined the war effort, only on the premise that it would display their patriotism, without considering the possible atrocities of the war. Because of this false premise, Paul and the rest of the students at the academy are lured into the war and are now forced to suffer the consequences as they experience their previous way of life be ripped away.
Once more, imagery is used to display the issue of nationalism. Imagery is used during the scene with the Russian prisoners when the author states, “They have faces that make one think–honest peasant faces… They look just as kindly as our own peasants in Friesland” (190). This scene depicts Paul humanizing the enemy Russian prisoners, comparing them to German peasants. The imagery present in this scene helps to depict the enemy Russians as no different from any German displaying Paul’s lack of nationalism as he begins to grow increasingly tired of the war. The author seems to be stating, through Paul humanizing the enemy Russian prisoners, that nationalism is harmful as it has brainwashed many into viewing the enemy as sub-human. The author then goes on to state, “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends” (193, 194). This demonstrates the lie that is nationalism, as many have been brainwashed into thinking that it is an expression of one’s pride for their country to mercilessly kill the enemy. However, this quote goes to show that the war is just unnecessary sacrifice as this dispute could simply be resolved through an agreement.
Through dialogue, the audience is able to learn how nationalism is exploitable. This becomes apparent when the author writes, “… ‘we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right’” (203). During this scene, Paul and his friends discuss which country is truly in the right. However, Paul states that maybe both countries are right, possibly both are wrong. Thus, displaying the conflicting ideology that is nationalism as everyone is led to believe that they hold the correct stance in the war. “… ‘our professors and parson and newspapers say that we are the only ones that are right… but the French professors and parsons and newspapers say that the right is on their side” (203, 204). This leads the group of young men to turn their heads toward the political powers behind the war as they begin to realize that the war is ploy for the people in power’s own personal gain, “… every full grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous… We didn’t want the war… and yet half the world is in it all the same” (206). This displays the idiocy of nationalism as it assumes that a country and its people are a single entity, it requires that the citizen place the interests of the country over their own or another country.
It seems that the author is commenting of the issue of nationalism in a society. This is shown through irony through the manipulation of Behm, imagery through the loss of rights and humanizing of the enemy, and through dialogue as Paul and his friends reason that political leaders play off of nationalistic ideals for their own personal gain. Through the commenting on the issue of nationalism, it appears that the author reveals to the audience, parts of the nature of our species. He seems to believe that as a whole, the human race is oblivious, blindly following a leader without question. Through the exposing of this human flaw, the author attempts to reform, attempting to rid of this blind submission.