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 has experienced it. Remarque demonstrates 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 to himself, Mother, what

should I answer to that! You would not understand, you could

never realize it. And you never shall realize it. Was it bad, you

ask.--You, Mother,--I shake my head and say: "No, Mother,

not so very. There are always a lot of us together so it isn't so

bad." (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 143) Even in trying to protect

her, by using words that are false, Baumer creates a

separation between his mother and himself. Clearly, as

Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not for the uninitiated. On

another level, however, Baumer cannot respond to his

mother's question: he understands that the experiences he

has had are so overwhelming that a "civilian" language, or

any language at all, would be ineffective in describing them.

Trying to replicate the experience and horrors of the war via

words is impossible, Baumer realizes, and so he lies. Any

attempt at telling the truth would, in fact, trivialize its reality.

During the course of his leave, Baumer also sees his father.

The fact that he does not wish to speak with his parent (i.e.,

use few or no words at all) shows Baumer's movement away

from the traditional institution of the family. Baumer reports

that his father "is curious [about the war] in a way that I find

stupid and distressing; I no longer have any real contact with

him" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146). In considering the

demands of his father to discuss the war, Baumer, once

again, realizes the impossibility, and, in this case, even the

danger, of trying to relate the reality of the war via language.

There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I

realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such

things; I would do it willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to

put these things into words. I am afraid they might then

become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them.

(Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146) Again, Baumer notes the

impossibility of making the experience of war meaningful

within a verbal context: the war is too big, the words

describing it would have to be correspondingly immense and,

with their symbolic size, might become uncontrollable and,

hence, meaningless. While with his father, Baumer meets

other men who are certain that they know how to fight and win

the war. Ultimately, Baumer says of his father and of these

men that "they talk too much for me ... They understand of

course, they agree, they may even feel it so too, but only with

words, only with words" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 149).

Baumer is driven away from the older men because he

understands that the words of his father's generation are

meaningless in that they do not reflect the realities of the

world and of the war as Baumer has come to understand

them. Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a

fallen comrade, Kemmerich. As he did with his own mother, he

lies, this time in an attempt to shield her from the details of her

son's lingering death. Moreover, in this conversation, we see

Baumer rejecting yet another one of the traditional society's

foundations: religious orthodoxy. He assures Kemmerich's

mother that her son "'died immediately. He felt absolutely

nothing at all. His face was quite calm'" (Remarque, All Quiet

VII. 160). Frau Kemmerich doesn't believe him, or, at least,

chooses not to. She asks him to swear "by everything that is

sacred to" him (that is, to God, as far as she is concerned)

that what he says is true (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). He

does so easily because he realizes that nothing is sacred to

him. By perverting this oath, Baumer shows both his

unwillingness to communicate honestly with a member of the

home front and his rejection of the God of that society. Thus,

another break with an aspect of his pre-enlistment society is

effected through Baumer's conscious misuse of language.

During his leave, perhaps Baumer's most striking realization

of the vacuity of words in his former society occurs when he is

alone in his old room in his parents' house. After being

unsuccessful in feeling a part of his old society by speaking

with his mother and his father and his father's friends, Baumer

attempts to reaffiliate with his past by once again becoming a

resident of the place. Here, among his mementos, the pictures

and postcards on the wall, the familiar and comfortable brown

leather sofa, Baumer waits for something that will allow him to

feel a part of his pre-enlistment world. It is his old schoolbooks

that symbolize that older, more contemplative, less military

world and which Baumer hopes will bring him back to his

younger innocent ways. I want that quiet rapture again. I want

to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel

when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then

arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me

again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere

in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick

joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost

eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait. (Remarque, All Quiet

VII. 151) But Baumer continues to wait and the sign does not

come; the quiet rapture does not occur. The room itself, and

the pre-enlistment world it represents, become alien to him. "A

sudden feeling of foreignness suddenly rises in me. I cannot

find my way back" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 152). Baumer

understands that he is irredeemably lost to the primitive,

military, non-academic world of the war. Ultimately, the books

are worthless because the words in them are meaningless.

"Words, Words, Words--they do not reach me. Slowly I place

the books back in the shelves. Nevermore" (Remarque, All

Quiet VII. 153). In his experiences with traditional society,

Baumer perverts language, that which separates the human

from the beast, to the point where it has no meaning. Baumer

shows his rejection of that traditional society by refusing to, or

being unable to, use the standards of its language.

Contrasted with Baumer's experiences during his visit home

are his dealings with his fellow trench soldiers. Unlike

Baumer's feelings at home where he chooses not to speak

with his father and makes an empty vow to Frau Kemmerich,

Baumer is able to effect true communication, of both a verbal

and spiritual kind, with his fellow trench soldiers. Indeed,

within this group, words can have a meaningful, soothing,

even rejuvenating, effect. Not long after his return from leave,

Baumer and some of his comrades go out on patrol to

ascertain the enemy's strength. During this patrol, Baumer is

pinned down in a shell hole, becomes disoriented, and suffers

a panic attack. He states: "Tormented, terrified, in my

imagination, I see the grey, implacable muzzle of a rifle which

moves noiselessly before me whichever way I try to turn my

head" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 184-85). He is unable to

regain his equanimity until he hears voices behind him. He

recognizes the voices and realizes that he is close to his

comrades in his own trench. The effect of his fellow soldiers'

words on Baumer is antithetical to the effect his father's and

his father's friends' empty words have on him. At once a new

warmth flows through me. These voices, these quiet words ...

behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible loneliness

and fear of death by which I had been almost destroyed. They

are more to me than life these voices, they are more than

motherliness and more than fear; they are the strongest, most

comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my

comrades. I am no longer ... alone in the darkness;-- I belong

to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the

same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder

way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these

words that have saved me and will stand by me. (Remarque,

All Quiet IX. 186) Here, Baumer understands the reviving

effects of his comrades' words. Strikingly, as opposed to his

town's citizens' empty words, the words of Baumer's comrades

actually go beyond their literal meanings. That is, whereas

Baumer notices that the words of the traditional world have no

meaning, the words of his comrades have more meaning than

even they are aware of. In fact, true communication can exist

in the world of the war with few or no words said at all. This

phenomenon is perhaps best demonstrated in the novel

during a scene involving Baumer and his Second Company

mate, Stanislaus Katczinsky. This scene, with its Eucharistic

overtones, can be counterpoised to Baumer's meeting with

Kemmerich's mother. During that meeting, Frau Kemmerich

insisted on some kind of verbal attestation of Baumer's

spiritual disposition. As noted above, he is quite willing to give

her such an asseveration because the words he uses in doing

so mean nothing to him. With Katczinsky, though, the situation

is different because the spirituality of the event is such that

words are not necessary, in fact, would be hindrances to the

communion Baumer and Katczinsky attain. The scene is a

simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky have stolen a

goose, in a small deserted lean-to they eat it together. We sit

opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats,

cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk

much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with

one another than even lovers have ... The grease drips from

our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another ... we sit

with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate

that we do not even speak. (Remarque, All Quiet V. 87)

These elemental and primitive activities of getting and then

eating food bring about a communion, a feeling "in unison,"

between the two men that clearly cannot be found in the

word-heavy environment of Baumer's home town. Perhaps

Remarque wants to make the point that true communication

can occur only in action, or in silence, or almost accidentally.

At any rate, Baumer demonstrates toward the end of his life

that even he is not immune from verbal duplicity of a kind that

was used on him to get him to enlist. Soon after he hears the

comforting words of his comrades (see above), Baumer is

caught in another shell hole during the bombardment. Here,

he is forced to kill a Frenchman who jumps into it while

attacking the German lines. Baumer is horrified at his action.

He notes, "This is the first time I have killed with my hands,

whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing"

(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 193). That is, the war, and his part in

it, have become much more personalized because now he

can actually see the face of his enemy. In his grief, Baumer

takes the dead man's pocket-book from him so that he can

find out the deceased's name and family situation. Realizing

that the man he killed is no monster, that, in fact, he had a

family, and is evidently very much like himself, Baumer begins

to make promises to the corpse. He indicates that he will write

to his family and goes so far as to promise the corpse that he,

Baumer, will take his place on earth: "'I have killed the printer,

Gerard Duval. I must be a printer'" (Remarque, All Quiet IX.

197). More importantly, Baumer renounces his status as

soldier by apologizing to the corpse for killing him. "Comrade, I

did not want to kill you ... You were only an idea to me before,

an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its

appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed ...

Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they

never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your

mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the

same fear of death, and the same dying and the same

agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If

we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my

brother just like Kat ..." (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 195) In

addition to the obvious brotherhood of nations sentiment that

appears in Baumer's eulogy, it is interesting to note that

Baumer sees that Duval could have been even closer--like

Katczinsky, a member of Baumer's inner circle of Second

Company. All of the sentiments, all of the words, that Baumer

articulates to Duval are admirable, but they are absolutely

false. As time passes, as he spends more time with the

corpse of Duval in the shell-hole, Baumer realizes that he will

not fulfill the various promises he has made. He cannot write

to Duval's family; it would be beyond impropriety to do so.

Moreover, Baumer renounces his brotherhood sentiments:

"Today you, tomorrow me" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 197).

Soon, Baumer admits, "I think no more of the dead man, he is

of no consequence to me now" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198).

And later, to hedge his bets in case there happens to be

justice in the universe, Baumer states, "Now merely to avert

any ill-luck, I babble mechanically: 'I will fulfill everything, fulfill

everything I have promised you--' but already I know that I

shall not do so" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 198). Remarque's

point in this episode is clear: no one is exempt from the

perversion of language vis-a-vis the war. Even Paul Baumer,

who had been disgusted by the meaninglessness of language

as demonstrated in his home town, himself uses words and

language that are meaningless. Once he is reunited with his

comrades after the shell hole episode, Baumer admits "it was

mere drivelling nonsense that I talked out there in the

shell-hole" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 199). Why does Baumer

do it? Why does he employ the same types of vacuous words

and sentiments that his elders and teachers had used and for

which he has no respect? "It was only because I had to lie

[One assumes that this double meaning is apparent only in

English.] there with him so long ... After all, war is war"

(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 200). Ultimately, that is all that Paul

Baumer and the reader are left with: war is war. It cannot be

defined; it cannot even be discussed with any accuracy. It has

no sense and, in fact, is the embodiment of a lack of any kind

of meaning. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria

Remarque shows the disorder created by the war. This

disorder affects such elemental societal institutions as the

family, the schools, and the church. Moreover, the war is so

chaotic that it infects the basic abilities, not the least of which

is verbal, of humanity itself. By showing how the First World

War deleteriously affects the syntax of language, Remarque is

able to demonstrate how the war irreparably alters the order

of the world itself. WORK CITED Remarque, Erich Maria. All

Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books,


Written by Peter Muller