Erich Maria Remarque's classic war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, deals with the many ways in which World War I affected peopleís lives, both the lives of soldiers on the front lines and the lives of people on the homefront. One of the most profound effects the war had was the way it made the soldiers see human life. Constant killing and death became a part of a soldierís daily life, and soldiers fighting on all sides of the war became accustomed to it. The atrocities and frequent deaths that the soldiers dealt with desensitized them to the reality of the vast quantities of people dying daily. The title character of the novel, Paul Bäumer, and his friends experience the devaluation of human life firsthand, and from these experiences they become stronger and learn to live as if every day were their last.
The killing and death of WW I depicted in the novel desensitizes Bäumer to the reality that death is now a regular and driving force in his life, and that each human life is no longer sacred and precious. Bäumer feels great emotion and sadness when one of his childhood friends, Kemmerich, dies early in the war. Bäumer expresses his emotional despair after Kemmerich's death, stating, "I become faint, all at once I cannot do any more. I won't revile any more, it is senseless, I could drop down and never rise up again" (Remarque 32). Because this is one of the first deaths that Bäumer witnesses personally and because Bäumer and Kemmerich were childhood friends, the emotional impact is even greater. However, not all the deaths of his comrades effect him in such a powerful manner. The fighting gets to a point at which Bäumer feels that the soldiers have been degraded to less than human and that death is now a daily occurrence; he asserts "We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when death is hunting us down" (113). Bäumer also sees that the war's effects on people makes them seem physically less than human; he explains "A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round" (263). Paul accurately sums up the warís most powerful effect in one simple sentence, "Our knowledge of life is limited to death" (264). The war not only makes the lives of the dead less valuable; it makes those who survive have a different, more "seize the day," outlook on their own lives.
The deaths of friends and acquaintances in the war makes those who survive place more value on their own lives. After Kemmerich's death, Bäumer feels a new-found vigor for his own life, "I breathe the air deeply. The night lives, I live. I feel a hunger, greater than comes from the belly alone" (33). Because of the vast amount of death and destruction, Bäumer and his fellow surviving comrades "have to take things as lightly as we can, so we make the most of every opportunity" (232). Bäumer sees the value of his own life and is cognoscente of how important it is to survive, no matter what it entails. "We lie under the network of arching shells and live in a suspense of uncertainty," says Baumer, "It isÖa matter of chance that I am still alive" (101). Bäumer has no idea whether he will be around to see another day, or if he will suffer the fate of death that so many of his comrades already have. The course of Bäumer's life is also greatly transformed due to his involvement in the war. He acknowledges the precarious situation in which he lives when stating, "Here, on the borders of death, life follows an amazingly simple course, it is limited to what is most necessary, all else lies buried in gloomy sleep" (273). Bäumerís life is totally disoriented and convoluted to the point where it becomes a necessity to fight for his survival, by dealing with the juggernaut of death that is WW I.
Bäumerís life is dramatically changed and drastically altered by WW I. His outlook on life and his dealing with death take on a totally new face, one that is bizarre to him. Death, which he once agonized over, is now a daily occurrence and seems commonplace to him. Life, which he once took for granted, is now cherished beyond belief, and holding on to it becomes his greatest preoccupation. These effects are not limited only to Paul Bäumer, but extend to all the millions of people that are involved, directly or indirectly, in the war. WW I has far-reaching impact. It not only touches those in combat on the front lines, but also those who support the soldiers and help to make munitions and supplies on the homefront. Bäumer
, and the millions of other people involved in WW I, learn the difficult lesson that the most trying experiences in life, or in this case death, are what make us the strongest and what drive us to survive.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Balantine Books, 1928.