All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel that gives a graphic, realistic portrayal of the horrors of war through the narration of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier who enlists in World War I. The novel focuses on Paul’s day to day life and fight to survive while stationed in the western front while the world as he knows it seems to fall apart in front of his eyes. The novel focuses on violent conflict in its most unadulterated form, without the distortions of patriotism or heroism. Death, trauma, and the fight for survival are all consequences of war that extend from the trenches to home.
Death is the primary effect of war. Simply, violence will almost always result in loss of life. While being stationed at the front, Paul and his fellow soldiers see death every day while in the trenches, and eventually it becomes a part of day to day life. After a deadly air raid, Paul describes the gruesome landscape, “The graveyard is a mass of wreckage. Coffins and corpses lie strewn about. They have been killed once again; but each of them that was flung up saved one of us” (Remarque 70-71). The only protection the soldiers have from artelliary is the dead bodies of their recently fallen fellow soldiers. Death and burial is a ritual that many hold sacred, and war takes away that sanctity in replacement for survival. Death effects the soldiers in a unit, who have formed bonds from their time in the trenches. It also affects family members, who have sent their loved ones off to way, desperately hoping that they will come back safe. When the concept or war is brought up, death is seen as one of the most common side effects, yet one of the most devastating.
When many of the soldiers who fought in WWI enlisted, they were motivated by romantic ideals, such as honor, valiance, or patriotism. They soon come to find that such rosy ideologies cannot protect them from the sheer violence of war. When on the battlefield, there are two opposing forces, life and death. Soldiers, when in the heat of battle, must act without question, simply on base instinct. It is a matter of survival. Even if these actions are horrific, they must be done in order to stay alive. Human emotions, such as fear, horror, grief, and pity are a death sentence. Once these soldiers have made it through battle, they must face the mental repercussions of the violent acts they were forced to commit for the sake of survival. These events are traumatic and lead to psychological damage that extends for longer than the time spent in the trenches.
Trauma has long been associated with war. What was once known as “shell shock” is what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is well documented that even a short traumatic eventing has lasting consequences. When soldiers spend months in battle, horror becomes a day-to-day event. Paul describes how battles linger with the soldiers in his unit. Even after the violence is finished, soldiers remain in shock, unable to think clearly. Though the soldiers are no longer in mortal danger, the trauma that they experience stays with them past the battlefield. Paul reflects on this, stating that “We forget nothing really. But so long as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they are past, sink down in us like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able to reflect on them at once (73).”