While in the hospital, Kemmerich “looks ghastly, yellow, and wan” from his injury, demonstrating his lack of invincibility (Remarque 18). These men are only human, and they are not strong or indestructible like iron, but rather weak from the injuries of the war. The men of World War I were exposed to the death and pain of their comrades, and saw the vulnerability of the human body and mind. While the soldiers’ bodies may be young, the gruesome experience of the war has aged their minds far beyond their years. The men are in fact the very opposite of the “Iron Youth.”
Paul believes that comradeship is the finest thing to arise from the war, because without it, the isolation and loneliness may become too great to survive. Paul explains that soldiers became “hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, [and] tough” during the difficult and miserable training, but that this shared misery also develops a sense of comradeship (Remarque 29). For the men in World War I, it is impossible to survive the horrors of the war alone, and camaraderie is absolutely necessary.
While it is true that Paul and his friends are young, they refer to themselves as “stone-age veterans” because they have been exposed to the horror of the war, which has aged them beyond their years. For Paul and his friends, being “quartered in a small, dark factory” with “nothing to be had” is nothing new, because they have adapted to the conditions of the war; but for the new recruits, this is not the case (Remarque 39). They don’t truly understand what the war entails, because the only way to know is to experience it.
As they approach the front, the men begin to realize the severity and danger of their situation, and become “instant human animals,” concentrating on simply staying alive one more day (Remarque 56). They have physically prepared for the challenges they will face at the front, but the mental willpower they need is unimaginable, and they focus solely on preserving their own lives. They transition from being playful, teenage boys to being fierce, focused men. This change is absolutely necessary, because without focus and determination, they will die.
For the 19 year-old men, the war consumes their entire lives. Kropp doesn’t “think [they’ll] ever go back” to “peace-time” because he can no longer imagine what it’s like (Remarque 81). Paul and his comrades entered the war just as they were entering adulthood, eliminating their opportunity to explore a peaceful world as men. They can’t envision that the war will end and that eventually, their normal lives will resume. Fighting the war has become their sole purpose. On the other hand, the older men who are in the war, such as Katzinsky, have a completely different experience. They will “go back to their jobs because they had them already” and continue providing for their families (Remarque 80). For the eldest men, the war is merely a pause in their lives, and their mindset is to serve their time and return to normal living; whereas the young adults cannot imagine a time without the war because they have never experienced adulthood without it.
During an attack, the soldiers “become wild beasts” who “destroy and kill” in order to “defend [themselves] against annihilation” (Remarque 103). The men are stripped of their humanity, as their only task is to survive the attack. They cannot afford to think about anything other than merely staying alive, because otherwise they could die in an instant.
While away from home, Paul detaches himself from his family and the outside world to focus on the war, and when he comes back to his mother, “there is a distance, a veil between [them]” (Remarque 142). Returning home only causes pain for both his mother and himself. Paul is distressed knowing that he was not there for his mother when she was sick, and only realizes this once he comes home. While on the front, he is able to suppress all of his emotions, but when he comes back, he is forced to face them. Paul is also in agony knowing that he will leave his family again and go back to the war, a horrid and dangerous place. The transition between war and home-life is more difficult than remaining away from family altogether.
When Paul receives potato-cakes that his mother, who has cancer, cooked herself, he realizes that she “was probably in pain as she stood before the hot stove” in order to make them (Remarque 174). Paul is devastated that he cannot be there for his mother, because of his commitment to the war. He has suppressed all of his emotions during the war, making it hard for him to feel grief. Paul feels alienated from his family, but receiving the potato cakes is a reminder of his inability to provide for his family while away at war.
Paul explains that Duval, the enemy soldier, was “only an idea . . . an abstraction that lived in [his] mind” before he stabbed him (Remarque 195). Later, he realizes that this man was equivalent to him, with a family and a life that could have been lived to its fullest if Paul hadn’t ended it. This realization causes him to understand the lack of humanity in war. Soldiers are taught to kill or be killed; there is no room for mercy or grief within war. Duval’s death ties all of this together for Paul.