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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
“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.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1984.
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