Much like us, when characters face challenges they grow and develop their perspectives. In Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (AQWF), the narrator and main character Paul Baumer faces many challenges throughout the story that cause him to grow and change as a person. This includes when Paul stabs and kills a French soldier named Gerard Duval. This shows how Paul has grown to rely on his instincts, ignore his emotions, and is a victim of propaganda.
Erich Maria Remarque was a German soldier in World War one and wrote this book when he returned. He suffered from depression and survivor’s guilt, while dealing with these struggles he wrote AQWF. The main theme is the horrors of war and highlights what he and his fellow soldiers went through. Due to the story painting war in a bad light, Hitler burned and banned the book during World War 2.
While on the frontlines, Paul and his fellow soldiers quickly come to realise that to survive, they must rely on their instincts. When Gerard Duval (a French soldier) accidentally falls into the shell hole Paul is taking cover in, Paul lashes out at him stabbing him repeatedly. Paul is not a violent person, nor does he take joy in killing those against him, quite the contrary, he only stabs Duval due to his instinct to survive. “I don’t think at all, I make no decision- I just stab wildly and feel only how the body jerks, then goes limp and collapses. When I come to myself again, my hand is sticky and wet.” Paul isn’t in control of what he is doing, his fear and instincts have taken over and have resulted in the death of Duval. When he says “When I come to myself again, my hand is sticky and wet.” He disassociates throughout the entire attack, he is only thinking of survival. He has been so damaged by the war that he only wants to survive. We are told earlier in the text that the men will joke and laugh on their way to the front but as soon as they get close they become serious as though a switch has been flicked. They become less human and more animal. They do this to survive. Soldiers have two sides to them, their true side that jokes around and is who they really are, and their animal side, the side that they rely on in battle, the side that tells them they are in danger. This all links back to the horrors of war. The gassing, the bombing, the barrages have split Paul into two halves, his true self and his animal self. The horror that Paul and the other men see daily has resulted in them relying on their instincts to survive.
Throughout his time on the front, Paul has learnt that he must ignore emotions, especially empathy, to protect himself both emotionally and physically. As Paul sits in the hole with Duval Paul is wracked with grief and empathy towards his fellow soldier. He desperately wants to make up for what he has done, he searches for the man’s wallet and paybook. Paul doesn’t want to find out the mans name, he knows that as long as the soldier stays anonymous paul can forget him and ignore that this ever happened. Paul goes against this thought however and looks through the man’s wallet, Paul finds photos of Duval’s wife and daughter, this fills Paul with even greater guilt as he starts to bargain with his self-consciousness. He tries to come up with an idea to rid him of his guilt, from writing to Duval’s family, to sending them money anonymously. After discovering Gerard Duval’s name and profession, a printer, Paul makes a promise to himself, “I have killed Gerard Duval, the printer. I think wildly that I shall have to become a printer, become a printer, a printer-” Paul’s emotional barriers have given way due to being stuck in a shell-hole with Duval for hours. A few in the next paragraph his emotional wall is back up again, he decided that he responded that way due to being stuck with Duval for so long. Paul prepares to crawl back to the trenches stating “I am not thinking of the dead man anymore, he’s of no importance to me.” Paul has closed himself off from his emotions, If he were to dwell on them for too long it would destroy what little sanity he still clings to. This all links back to the effects war has on soldiers. Remarque is showing that the psychiatric damage inflicted by war often outweighs the physical damage. If the soldiers don’t put up some form of an emotional barrier, they will quickly lose all sanity they hold dear, the constant fighting and death the men witness takes and a serious toll on one’s psyche.
Paul is a victim of propaganda from the very start of the book. He is influenced into enlisting along with the other boys in his class by his teacher, Kantorek, who presents fighting in the war as a great noble and patriotic deed. The government tells the civilians back home that Germany is the best and that Britain and the allies are the “enemies”, further pushing the idea that the war is a great thing. After Duval dies, Paul sits with his corpse in the shell-hole. He talks to him, saying “I didn’t mean to kill you mate… I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet, and your weapons- now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common.” Paul has been influenced to see British and French forces as the “enemy” when the truth is they are just like Paul and his fellow German soldiers. They are human and also struggling with the impacts of the war and the impression the German government is giving of the men isn’t helping. Remarque’s teaching the audience about the damage propaganda can have on those it influences. Paul and his classmate would have been much less likely to enlist had they been told the truth about the war and weren’t fed the ideas of glory from the government. Paul and his friends’ deaths are all linked back to the propaganda of the time, they are led to believe that they are dying for their country when the reality is their deaths are nothing but a statistic. Propaganda is harmful and Remarque’s novel is very open about that.
In conclusion, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ has many challenges that cause the characters to grow and develop, such as how Paul is now reliant on his instincts, how he has built an emotional barrier, and that he is a victim of propaganda, with all these changes being reflected in Paul’s killing of Gerard Duval. These changes all link back to the effects the war had on the soldiers.