German Literature

The Problem of Language in "All Quiet on the Western Front"


For it is no easy undertaking, I say,
to describe the bottom of the Universe;
nor is it for tongues that only babble child\'s play.

(The Inferno, XXXII, 7-9.)


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,
destroyed.
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